Novak Djokovic was poised to skip the Grand Slam rather than take the Covid-19 vaccine after the Australian Open fiasco, but the world number one was gaining momentum in a start-stopping season to culminate in a timely French Open title defense.
The 20-times champion was unable to defend his Australian Open title in January after being expelled from the country after initially being accepted into the tournament despite not being vaccinated.
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Djokovic started his season late in Dubai and was knocked out of the lead after a shock loss to qualifier Jerry Vesely in the quarter-finals before withdrawing from Indian Wells and Miami because he was unable to enter the United States.
The Serbian also risked a freeze from Roland Garros over his stance on the vaccine, but was given a reprieve when France lifted restrictions in nearly all public places in March.
A claycourt swing in April produced mixed results as the 34-year-old was knocked down by Alejandro Davidovic Fokina early on in Monte Carlo and Andrei Rublev in the Belgrade final, before losing to Carlos Alcaraz in this month’s Madrid semi-final.
But after claiming his first title in more than six months without dropping a set at last week’s Italian Open, Djokovic showed he was one of the top contenders ahead of his bid for a 21st Grand Slam title to level with Rafa Nadal.
Djokovic, who won his sixth title in Rome and claimed his 1,000th victory at the Tour level road, said.
“Especially with the emergence of the major tournaments, where I want to give my best and be on the level of confidence… for a chance to win the title.”
Djokovic reiterated that he will use his struggles in a turbulent year as fuel for the remainder of the season after dismantling Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-0 7-6 (5) in the Rome final.
“I got anything I was really looking for in Rome,” said Djokovic, who also beat world number four Tsitsipas in last year’s French Open title match.
“It’s the perfect prep for Roland Garros. I’m going to Paris with confidence and feelings about my chances. With the arrangement and the way I’ve been playing in the past few weeks, I’ve been estimating myself as one of the favourites.”
Nadal’s foot injury ahead of this year’s second Grand Slam may bolster Djokovic’s claims, but 19-year-old Spaniard Alcaraz – who has beaten both players en route to winning the Madrid title and appears poised for major success – is a snag.
“Obviously I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about who is going to win it or who might have the best chance,” Djokovic said. “I always think of myself.
“I go there with the highest ambitions… The draw is clearly not something you can influence, but it will determine my path to the later stages.
“Top five sets, you play every two days. It’s a Grand Slam. It’s different… you have to approach it in a different way.”
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