Djokovic confronts greatest challenge as clock ticks

PARIS: Twelve months after his latest bid to complete a career Grand Slam was thwarted, Novak Djokovic targets an elusive French Open title with time and history threatening to conspire against him.

The world number one was left in tears in 2015 when Stan Wawrinka unleashed a battery of single-handed backhand winners to all corners of Court Philippe Chatrier on his way to a shock Paris title.

Djokovic turns 29 on Sunday and will be playing Roland Garros for a 12th time where he remains the overwhelming favourite to secure a trophy which would also place him halfway to the first calendar Grand Slam since 1969.

But tennis is littered with great names whose Grand Slam pedigree endured shattering reality checks on Roland Garros’s unforgiving crushed red brick surfaces.

Pete Sampras won 14 majors but 13 times the great American tried to win the French Open and 13 times he failed.

Stefan Edberg also made 13 fruitless visits while Djokovic’s coach Boris Becker tried nine times.

John McEnroe also flopped, the four-time US Open and three-time Wimbledon winner having to console himself with a runners-up spot in Paris in 1984.

Djokovic, with 11 majors under his belt, has come closer than all of them. He has been runner-up three times and a semi-finalist on four occasions.

His record in 2016 reads 37 wins and just three defeats although two of those came on clay — against Jiri Vesely in a freak Monte Carlo opening-round exit and a loss to Andy Murray in last weekend’s Rome final.

Djokovic starts in Paris against Taiwan’s Lu Yen-Hsun, the world number 100.

He is seeded to face Tomas Berdych in the last-eight before a potential semi-final blockbuster against nine-time champion Rafael Nadal in what would be the 50th meeting between the two superstars.

“I still feel like I have plenty of more years ahead of me, which gives me more comfort in terms of opportunities I’m going to have at the title of Roland Garros, which releases more pressure for me this year,” said the top seed.

“I don’t try to approach them from a point of view of being obsessed with this tournament.”

World number two Murray is shaping up as Djokovic’s greatest threat.

He may be 8,000 points behind in the world rankings, but the former US Open and Wimbledon winner has developed a taste for clay relatively late in his career.

His 6-3, 6-3 win over Djokovic at the Foro Italico came on his 29th birthday. – AFP