Slam immortality beckons for Djokovic

The dust at the Monte Carlo Country Club has settled and the European Clay Court Swing has now moved to Spain and Romania.

World number one Novak Djokovic romped to his third Masters 1000 title of the season, adding to his successful campaigns at Miami and Indian Wells earlier in the year.

In the build-up to and during the Monte Carlo Masters, there had been many questions which needed to be answered. One week later, most of those questions still haven’t been answered, while many more questions have emerged.

World number five Kei Nishikori did not compete at the event this year and so the jury is still out on whether he can build on the remarkable clay court campaign that he produced in 2014.

Nishikori won the 2014 Barcelona Open and advanced to the final of the Madrid Masters a few weeks after that. The Japanese player retired hurt during that Madrid final against Rafael Nadal but it is perhaps worth noting that he did win the first set of that match and took an additional four games off the Spaniard in the second set.

While Nishikori failed at Roland Garros, there are some in the tennis fraternity, especially here at FOX Sports Asia, who still believe that he will one day dominate on the clay courts of Europe. 

After an uncertain start to the 2014 European Clay Court Swing, Great Britain’s Andy Murray eventually proved to the tennis fraternity that he was a cerebral enough player to succeed on this difficult surface.

Murray advanced to the semi-final at Roland Garros, where he lost to Nadal in straight sets. One week into this year’s European Clay Court Swing, it is still no clearer on just what it is that Murray will produce this season.

Roger Federer produced a largely successful Monte Carlo campaign in 2014 but faded into oblivion as the clay court season wore on. Ahead of this year’s tournament, all and sundry were anxious to see if he would be able to make an early statement once again. Suffice to say, he failed in the third round tie against mercurial Frenchman Gael Monfils, and in straight sets too.

However, the one question that everybody wanted answered last week was that of a 28-year-old Spaniard from Manacor, who had won the tournament on eight previous occasions.

When Nadal dropped just three games against Lucas Pouille in the second round of the tournament, there appeared to be strong indications that the King of Clay was back.

However, his subsequent matches against John Isner and compatriot David Ferrer were all dragged to three sets. Doubts emerged once again, ahead of the semi-final match against the man who threatens to dethrone him this season, Djokovic.

Suffice to say, Nadal failed his biggest test on clay this season, in a largely straightforward, straight sets defeat.

In fact the only thing the recent trip to the Monte Carlo Country Club did prove to the tennis fraternity was that there is now a genuine possibility a male player will win the Calendar Year Grand Slam, for the first time since 1969.

Since the legendary Rod Laver achieved that feat, several players have come agonizingly close to doing it again. However, on most occasions the one piece of silverware which was missing in their trophy cabinet was the Musketeers’ trophy, awarded to the men's singles champion at Roland Garros.

In 1974 Jimmy Connors won his first three Major titles, at the Australian and US Opens and capped his year off with a win at the All England Club.

Rising star Bjorn Borg conquered Roland Garros that year but it is perhaps worth noting that Connors did not make the trip to France either.

For all of his dominance on the ATP Tour during the 1990s, former world number one Pete Sampras was never able to solve the Roland Garros mystery. 

In any event, the best the American with the booming serve could do was achieve two Major titles in a calendar year; in all fairness he was never really a contender for the Grand Slam.

Swiss legend Roger Federer, who emerged as a mega star at the turn of century was the ATP Tour's one great hope during the modern era. Federer went into the 2004 French Open tournament as the number one seed, and after completing an absolute demolition job against rival Marat Safin at the Australian Open earlier in the year.

However, during his passage to the final at Roland Garros, Federer ran into the outgoing King of Clay, Gustavo Kuerten. Suffice to say, the Swiss master was taught a major lesson in the early stages of his career. Winning on clay is not child’s play.

As it so happens, Federer did not get another opportunity as glorious as this to complete the Calendar Year Slam, as a new Clay Court King (Nadal) was crowned just one year later. For four consecutive years Federer did not have a sniff at Roland Garros.

His task was made that much harder when Nadal also learned to win on courts that were not made from clay. Federer's prospects of winning the Grand Slam dwindled fast and as it so happens, he has never had another shot at achieving the feat.

Tennis's next great hope is Djokovic, the most well-rounded player since Federer and now the most likely to achieve the Calendar Year Grand Slam. 

Just 18 months ago the tennis fraternity used to make reference to the Big Four, all of whom were a cut above the rest of the players on the international tennis circuit.

Djokovic is now the Big One, a cut above Roger Federer and Andy Murray, who are currently second and third in the ATP Tour rankings. Nadal is not a part of the equation, for the moment. 

Having already conquered Melbourne Park in 2015, the odds of him winning at the All England Club and Flushing Meadows are heavily in his favour, granted that he stays injury free. Of that there is little doubt.

However, what makes Djokovic such a strong candidate to lift all four Major titles this season, is the fact that Rafael Nadal has shown no signs of a full recovery just yet. Djokovic has already come agonizingly close to upsetting the applecart at Roland Garros on two occasions in the past three years. 

In 2012, he had Nadal severely under the cosh, before the rain came down, when the momentum appeared to be in his favour. Suffice to say, Nadal then bounced back and soldiered on to victory.

Djokovic pushed Nadal to four sets again in 2014, and this time he really should have emerged victorious. Nadal's powers have waned considerably since then and Djokovic, who is the premier player in tennis, has to be the one to assume the throne, should the opportunity present itself.

Siyabonga Mchunu