• French Open, Day Three

Completing career slam drives Djokovic on

Greg Garber
May 28, 2013

The career grand slam is a sweeping and monumental achievement. Only four active players are lucky (and good) enough to have done it: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and, with her unlikely title here a year ago, Maria Sharapova.

Novak Djokovic aches to join them.

"This is the tournament that is the No. 1 priority of my year, of my season," the just-turned-26-year-old Serb said before the tournament. "This is where I want to win, and I'm going to go for it."

Despite a day of rain that delayed his match approximately six hours, Djokovic got off to a decent start Tuesday, defeating a surprisingly difficult David Goffin 7-6(5), 6-4, 7-5. Maybe it was a coincidence, but the sun was shining and a rainbow could be seen behind Court Philippe Chatrier when Djokovic walked off (finally) after 9 p.m.

"I think I warmed up five or six times today and finally got to the court," Djokovic said. "He did really well at the start, and throughout all the match he was playing really nice tennis from the baseline. I needed to fight all the way through every set, and I served well when I needed to and played my best tennis when it was most important.

"He likes playing here, obviously. He has the strokes, but it's going to take everything he has to reach the top because it's very competitive."

Winning the Australian Open in January, in the heat of the local summer, requires a certain mental stamina. The grass at the All England Club has its own intricate pitfalls and the yawning asphalt canyons of the US Open at the end of the year are not easily conquered. The red clay at Roland Garros during the raw spring of Paris? An especially difficult task that requires grim determination, intestinal fortitude and a willingness to get dirty.

That's why it was the last of the four for Sharapova, not to mention Federer (in 2009) and Andre Agassi (1999). Pete Sampras, famously, could never lift the title in Paris, at best reaching the semifinals in 1996.

Djokovic seems destined to reign at Roland Garros, but can he win the title this year? If so, he may have to go through the two active male players who have beaten him to the career grand slam punch - Nadal and Federer - potentially, in the semi-finals and finals. Perhaps that is how it should be.

Parsing the early returns here, it seems eminently doable. Nadal was harassed repeatedly by young German Daniel Brands in his opening match and there is the Monte Carlo result to consider. In their only meeting on clay so far this year, Djokovic dispatched Nadal in straight sets.

"That was important for my confidence level," Djokovic insisted. "I won against the best player on this surface. That win against him can give me that necessary mental belief, self-belief prior to this tournament."

And then there is last year's French Open final. It was a first for Djokovic, after reaching the semifinals three of the previous five years. Djokovic had won 27 consecutive grand slam singles matches and was attempting to win his fourth straight major - something that hadn't happened since 1969, when Rod Laver executed the career grand slam in a single breathtaking season.

Nadal won the first two sets, but Djokovic took the third and was leading 2-1 in the fourth when rain pushed the Sunday final into Monday. If not for that unscheduled interruption, Djokovic might have forced the match into a fifth set. As it was, Nadal won 7-5 in the fourth.

The Spaniard won his record seventh French Open title and Djokovic found himself supplied with even more incentive to win the 2013 tournament at Roland Garros.

After Monte Carlo, though, Djokovic lost to Grigor Dimitrov in his first match at Madrid and to Tomas Berdych in the quarter-finals at Rome.

Goffin, a 22-year-old Belgian who has appeared in only five grand slam events, knows this place well. A year ago, in his Grand Slam debut, he achieved his best result in a major, reaching the round of 16 before losing to Federer. It was the first time a "lucky" qualifying loser went that far at major since countryman Stormin' Dick Norman reached that point at Wimbledon in 1995.

He maintained his composure against Djokovic, winning a surprising 15 games, yet failed to take a set.

"It was a good match," Goffin said later. "I deserved better, I think. Three sets were a bit tight. I mean, it was 4-4, 40-love, and in the third set, well, you never know. I was holding my ground, and after three shots I could have maybe broken his serve.

"Anyway, Novak is who I'm playing against, and he's extremely solid on his serving. He was serving very, very well and very, very hard. Losing in three sets, well, that's how the cookie crumbled."

When he walked on the court, did he have flashbacks from last year's two-day loss to Nadal?

"Yeah," Djokovic said, "it was a great memory. I played finals last year. It was the first time in my career to reach the final stage of Roland Garros. I love this grand slam. I really want to do well here.

"I have high hopes for myself, and there is no secret about it. It's a huge motivation for me to go all the way."

This article originally appeared on ESPN.com

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