I have mountain to climb at French Open, says Djokovic - GulfToday

I have mountain to climb at French Open, says Djokovic

Novak-Djokovic

Novak Djokovic in action during his third round match against Philipp Kohlschreiber. File/ AFP

World number one Novak Djokovic has enjoyed two good weeks on red clay but admitted that winning a second French Open title would be a tall order after a crushing defeat by Rafael Nadal in last week’s Italian Open final.

Djokovic clinched the Madrid Open without dropping a set and then won a pair of epic battles against Argentines Juan Martin Del Potro and Diego Schwartzman in Rome before succumbing to the imperious Nadal 6-0 4-6 6-1 in Sunday’s final.

That defeat aside, the Serb’s form seems to have peaked in time for the May 26-June 9 tournament. However, the 32-year-old from Belgrade, who has won 15 Grand Slam titles, made it clear Nadal, who is the same age, was the favourite at Roland Garros.

He also named Austrian Dominic Thiem, the 25-year-old world number four, and 11th-ranked Italian Fabio Fognini, who is 31, as strong contenders.

“Nadal (is) the number one favourite without a doubt, and then everyone else,” a serene Djokovic told reporters after he was beaten by the Spaniard at the Foro Italico.

“I think it’s going to be a really good tournament. Dominic Thiem has been playing some good tennis and he can beat anybody, especially on clay.

“Fognini is also playing quality tennis, he showed against Nadal in Monte Carlo what he is capable of,” he added referring to the Italian’s 6-4 6-2 semi-final victory.

“On a given day, best of five (sets), with one day between matches, players will have enough time to really be at their best.

“Everybody is trying to peak for Roland Garros and I am really looking forward to it.”

Meanwhile, twelve months ago at Roland Garros, an embarrassed Naomi Osaka bristled at being hailed as the ‘coolest thing’ in Tennis.

Now, however, the 21-year-old Japanese returns to Paris as comfortably the sport’s hottest ticket with the world number one billing, a bank balance bursting at the seams and on the brink of a third successive Grand Slam title.

“The one word that comes to my mind is amazing,” says Osaka’s older sister Mari, a fellow tour player.

“I’m really proud of her.”

Naomi Osaka was seeded at a Grand Slam for the first time at the 2018 French Open when she made the third round, countering claims she was the ‘coolest thing in Tennis’ by asserting she was the sport’s ‘most awkward person’.

But it was the razzle-dazzle of New York — helped by a mega-meltdown by Serena Williams — which propelled her to a maiden Slam triumph in September.

That was backed up by a second major at the Australian Open, her status as the face of the new generation of women’s Tennis comfortably confirmed.

Osaka, the daughter of a Haitian father and Japanese mother, has since been signed up by Nike in a deal reportedly worth in the region of $10 million a year. Despite being based full-time in the United States and still often struggling with the Japanese language, sponsors from home have come calling -- from an airline and car-maker to a noodle company and detergent manufacturer.

In Japan, her coy personality and breezy news conferences have made her into a media darling.

‘Naomi-speak’ was among the most searched phrases online in 2018.

“She’s multicultural, multinational, multiracial,” Stuart Duguid, Osaka’s agent and an IMG executive, told Britain’s Financial Times.

However, fame still sits uncomfortably with Osaka whose career earnings have already rocketed past the $11 million mark. In the wake of her Australian Open triumph, she shocked Tennis by splitting with coach Sascha Bajin, one of the masterminds of her meteoric rise.

Her 2019 results, meanwhile, have been steady rather than spectacular -- she hasn’t reached another final since Melbourne while her clay court season has been blighted by injury.

An abdominal strain forced a pullout from Stuttgart while a hand injury sparked an early departure from Rome last week.

Not that Osaka is getting too down on herself.

“Grand Slams to me are like a playground, I have a lot of fun there,” she said ahead of Sunday’s French Open start.

Clay courts, too, are becoming bearable for a player whose power game traditionally thrives on faster courts.

At Roland Garros last year, Osaka was serving at 121mph (196.2k/ph), a speed matched only by Serena Williams.

This year alone, she has unleashed 184 aces across all surfaces.

“I think for me, I’m kind of comfortable with clay now. It’s just like I randomly slip. I feel like if I can get that under control, I’ll be good.”

Agencies