THE HEAT is on. The French Open will have a new champion for the first time in six years – and only the second time in a decade – and as the four semi-finalists line up today, the draw has pitted the two hottest players of the year against each other.
Today, as the temperature is forecast to hit the sweltering 30s, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic will go toe to toe for the 27th time in their careers with a place in the final at stake. Neither man has lost a match on clay this year, both have two clay court trophies in their kitbags already and both know that with the once unbeatable Rafael Nadal already on his way home to Majorca, this is a huge opportunity to win at Roland Garros. Chances like this do not come around very often.
But is Murray nervous? Will he have slept fitfully, dreaming of what might be and what could possibly go wrong? Not a bit of it. As he faces up to Djokovic, he knows that the pressure is piled squarely on the Serb’s shoulders. The bookies are not giving Murray so much as a sniff of a chance of winning today and the form book would suggest they are quite right. Consequently, Murray is relaxed and free to play his game, his way, and see what happens. And that could be the making of him.
Djokovic has been all but unbeatable this season and has already clumped Murray three times since the start of the year. He has not lost to the Scot since the Wimbledon final in 2013 – a run of seven wins – and leads their career rivalry 18-8. He has been so eye-wateringly consistent that he has already qualified for the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals. And it is only June.
But most importantly of all, by beating Nadal, he has removed the biggest threat to everyone’s ambitions in Paris: he beat the man who had only lost one match in ten years at Roland Garros. As the overwhelming favourite for the title, the French Open is now Djokovic’s to lose.
The Coupe des Mousquetaires is the one trophy missing from Djokovic’s collection – if he can win it, he will complete his career Grand Slam and write his own chapter in the history books. Only seven men have ever managed to win all four major titles in their careers, and two of them are Roger Federer and Nadal. To be mentioned in the same breath as his closest rivals, he needs the French Open silverware in his trophy cabinet. Consequently, his desperation to win it has become an obsession. If there is a chink in Djokovic’s defences, this might be it.
“You put extreme amounts of pressure on yourself to do it,” Murray said, speaking from the experience of having ended Britain’s 77-year wait for a homegrown Wimbledon champion. “You would say this is Novak’s best chance now to do it, having beaten Rafa and Rafa not playing as well as he has in the past. No one who is left in the tournament has won the event. He would go into the semi-finals being the most experienced player. To win the career Grand Slam is an extremely difficult thing to do. That’s why so few people have done it. He will obviously put a lot of pressure on himself to try to do it this year.”
John McEnroe agrees with Murray’s assessment. He, too, lived in the pressure cooker environment of personal ambition, national expectation and living legends as his nearest rivals. In 1986, at the age of 27, he could stand the daily stresses no longer and took a six-month sabbatical. He was never the same player again.
“There’s a lot of pressure on him, no question, and I’m sure a lot of it is self-induced,” McEnroe said of Djokovic. “He’s got an opportunity to be considered among the elite of the elite if he wins this. I was always thinking, ‘how would I break in with Connors and Borg and be considered their equal?’. And it was not easy to do that and when I sort of felt like I was on that level, it [felt like] an amazing accomplishment.
“I think Novak’s the same: he’s got these two guys [Federer and Nadal] who are arguably the two greatest guys ever, but he’s trying to sort of be on an equal footing. And that’s a hell of tough thing to do when you look at their 17 and 14 slams and Novak’s at eight. But he’s got a chance to be considered one of the all-time greats if he wins. Then he’s going to be considered one of the all-time greats. So there’s a lot of incentive, obviously.”
All of that said, the odds are still stacked heavily in Djokovic’s favour. Murray will have to play the clay court match of his life if he is to reach the final – and he knows it. Beating the Serb on any surface has been almost impossible in the past 12 months but for Murray to do it on clay would be truly sensational.
“The challenge of winning against him this year has been extremely tough,” Murray said. “He has lost only two matches this year: one against Karlovic in the first tournament, then Roger in the final in Dubai where the conditions were very quick.
“It’s a huge, huge task. I’ll try to get myself prepared as best I can. I couldn’t have prepared any better, with the way the last few weeks have gone, winning 15 matches in a row on clay. I’ve never prepared for a semi-final of the French Open better than I have this time, so hopefully I will go out there and play well.”
And if he doesn’t play well, no worries. There is always Wimbledon to come. But if Djokovic does not play well and does not win his first French Open title, the damage to his confidence could be irreparable. The heat really is on.
HEAD TO HEAD
In 26 matches, Novak Djokovic holds the upper hand, with 18 wins to Andy Murray’s eight. Murray last beat the Serbian in the 2013 Wimbledon final, on grass. Djokovic has won their last seven, all on hard courts. They last met on clay in 2011, in the Rome semi-final. Djokovic won 6-1, 3-6, 7-6(2). Their only other game on clay came in Monte Carlo in 2008, with Djokovic winning 6-0, 6-4.
LAST EIGHT MEETINGS:
2015 Miami Masters final: Djokovic 7-6(3), 4-6, 6-0
2015 Indian Wells Masters semi-final: Djokovic 6-2, 6-3
2015 Australian Open final: Djokovic 7-6(5), 6-7(4), 6-3, 6-0
2014 Paris Masters quarter-final: Djokovic 7-5, 6-2
2014 Beijing semi-final: Djokovic 6-3, 6-4
2014 US Open quarter-final: Djokovic 7-6(1), 6-7(1), 6-2, 6-4
2014 Miami Masters quarter-final: Djokovic 7-5, 6-3
2013 Wimbledon final: Murray 6-4, 7-5, 6-4