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Why Novak Djokovic Is Still the Prohibitive Favorite at the 2016 French Open

  • ontennis
  • 29 April 2016
  • 11:04

A prosperous fortnight in Monte Carlo and Barcelona gave a rejuvenated Rafael Nadal two big titles and imbued him with the type of confidence booster he desired for months on end.

The sample size is small, but Nadal showed flashes of the old "King of Clay" we once grew accustomed to seeing wreak havoc every spring.

The buzz around him is palpable. But that recent success may not matter once he hits his old stamping grounds in Paris. Even the nine-time French Open champion will have to chase a player on the precipice of history: Novak Djokovic.

Overshadowed isn't a term often used to describe Djokovic anymore, yet he's taken a backseat to the Nadal hype train in recent weeks. Partly because of his own early exit in Monte Carlo and mainly due to his rival's resurgence, the world No. 1's status as the overwhelming favorite for Roland Garros seems to have cooled.

Not so fast.

There's a reason Djokovic should still be considered the man to beat at the French Open: He's just that much better than the field, including Nadal. Prior to that upset loss in Monte Carlo—and not counting his injury-induced retirement in Dubai this February—the sterling Serb won all nine tournaments he entered dating back to the 2015 U.S. Open.

That's the definition of a true monarchy.

So while we lavish Nadal with praise for his turnaround, let's remember how thoroughly Djokovic has controlled their rivalry the last two years. Their last six matches have all gone his way in straight sets, including his quarterfinal dethroning of Nadal in Paris last June. 

That win could pay huge psychological dividends for Djokovic should they meet at the French Open this year. Winless in all six of their previous meetings at Roland Garros, Djokovic finally removed that humungous chip from his shoulder.

Nadal owns an unparalleled resume on Court Philippe Chatrier, but Djokovic now holds all the momentum in their series. The last few weeks don't shift the balance of power between them.

It's not as if their matches lately have been particular close, either. Only twice has Djokovic lost more than three games in a set during that string of domination. Think that puts a little extra wind in his sails? Absolutely.

The specter of Nadal and his storied legacy is something Djokovic will likely face yet again in Paris. The difference this time is he knows he can beat him there.

Examining other challengers, no one really stands out. There's Roger Federer, who's not only working himself into match shape after knee surgery, but hasn't made it past the quarterfinals at the French Open since 2012.

Andy Murray (whom Djokovic is 11-1 against the last two years) is in the midst of a dry spell and hasn't won a title in over eight months. His form in recent tournaments doesn't suggest he'll be able to mount enough of a threat to Djokovic.

Even Stan Wawrinka is struggling at the moment. He caught lightning in a bottle and shocked Djokovic in last year's French Open final, but what are the odds that will happen again? Probably low based on the Stanimal's series of defeats the last several weeks.

Beyond the Top 5, the only other realistic contender is Kei Nishikori. Although a supremely talented player in his own right, he doesn't exactly have the best pedigree at Roland Garros, advancing as far as the quarterfinals only once in his career.

For Djokovic, winning the French Open has been the prime objective for several seasons—especially so this time around. He knows the title is ripe for the taking thanks to a field in flux. Last year was a missed opportunity, but he'll soon have a shot at redemption.

The "will he or won't he?" question about finally conquering Paris is one that's followed Djokovic like an albatross for several seasons. He's tired about having that burden to bear, but his resume won't be complete until he gets the title.

Few players in men's tennis history have completed a career Grand Slam. Djokovic aspires to nab a seat at that exclusive table and bolster his legacy even further. He wants that asterisk next to his name removed once and for all.

Motivation and focus won't be issues. He's already been salivating about the 2016 French Open for months.

'Very hungry,'' Djokovic told Tennis.com (h/t Associated Press) after winning the Australian Open. ''But the wolf needs to eat a lot of different meals to get to Paris. Paris is a dessert.''

Titles in Indian Wells and Miami only made his appetite grow. Now he's ready for the real feast.

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