As we find ourselves right in the eye of the clay season storm, there's one question that continues to scale higher and higher up the peak of my interest. Rafael Nadal's dominance on the surface has been talked, written, groaned and lauded about enough for one year. And because he continues to play so well and win so effortlessly the "Nadal on Clay" story becomes a little, I don't know... boring.
Really, the most interesting story line heading into Madrid, Rome and Paris -- gosh that just sounds like a vacation for the ages doesn't it? -- is finding out how Novak Djokovic will fare on the surface most foreign to his game.
First, let's put what it means to win the French Open into perspective.
For players like Roger Federer and Andre Agassi, success on clay -- which really meant winning the French Open just once -- was merely the cherry atop the delicious chocolate sundaes of their careers. Both Federer and Agassi did not need to win at Roland Garros to validate themselves and what they had accomplished in the sport.
Winning all four grand slams surely meant a lot to both players, but if either of them had failed to do so, would we look any differently at them as champions? Surely not. If that were the case, Pete Sampras would be left out of the many "best player of all time" conversations that he has been ever so present within.
However, Djokovic's situation is much different than that of Federer and Agassi's when they won the French. Djokovic is just now entering the very prime of his career. He's young, he's talented, he's driven and he's finally mastered the one thing that has kept him below the tennis stratosphere he presently floats freely within: the mental focus to win on a consistent basis.
The guy has proven, especially through the first few months of the 2011 season, that he can win on hard courts against any player you put in front of him. And as his serve has improved, his chances to win Wimbledon have grown considerably, as well.
But the question remains: Can Novak Djokovic succeed on clay and win the French Open this year?
The first problem in answering that question is that we still haven't seen this Djokovic, the one who unmercifully dominated the beginning of this season, perform on clay yet. In fact, Nole hasn't played since Key Biscayne where he bested Rafa in the finals for the second straight tournament.
Even though Djokovic was playing the type of tennis where he'd only miss when someone would set loose a bear on the court and he was forced to play while avoiding being eaten (a style I might add, that usually translates well onto the dirty-red surface) it's hard to predict just exactly how effective his grind-you-down-into-a-pulp game will fare against the hundred spaniards he'll surely face who track down every ball and loop it back over the net.
So, if I was forced to make a prediction this very instant without the advantage of knowing how Djokovic is playing when the French Open rolls around, I'd have to say, even for as well as he has played so far this year, it would be a very tall task for the Serb to win the slam.
There are any number of factors that could contribute to his demise during the two week tournament in Paris. But there's really only one worth mentioning. Rafael Nadal. Roger Federer and many other good clay court players have missed out on the opportunity to win grand slams simply due to Nadals' existence. Look how hard Nadal plays in an early round match in Barcelona, then think about how much the French Open title means to him (and it's a lot if you are still sitting there thinking about it) and imagine how much more the guy wants to win when at Roland Garros.
It's an unbeatable mentality, even for Djokovic, the guy who's playing the best tennis in the world right now. That doesn't mean, however, that down the road -- unlike Federer and Agassi who were great players that were able to grab one French Open title -- Djokovic can't win multiple Roland Garros crowns. Unfortunately for Djokovic, it just probably isn't going to happen this year.
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Andre Agassi, clay court, french, Madrid, Novak Djokovic, Paris, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Roland Garros, Rome, season, Tennis