LONDON (Reuters) - He is the tennis version of the Terminator and he’ll definitely be back at the French Open in May, but for Novak Djokovic his exploits at the claycourt major could decide his place in the pantheon of greats.
For the second time in his career, Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Australian Open champion Djokovic will arrive at Roland Garros needing seven victories to become the first man in almost 50 years to hold all four grand slam titles at the same time.
It is a feat that is so difficult that it has not been achieved by a man since Australian Rod Laver won the second of his calendar Grand Slams in 1969.
Djokovic’s effort to join an exclusive club which boasts only two male members -- Don Budge and Laver -- was thwarted in 2012 by Rafa Nadal in the Paris final.
With nine-times French Open champion Nadal no longer the force he was, Djokovic will arrive in Paris as the overwhelming favorite to lift to the Musketeers’ Cup for the first time at his 12th attempt.
Djokovic, beaten in three Paris finals over the last four years, may never get such a golden opportunity to complete a feat that was tantalisingly just out of reach for tennis greats such as Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Nadal.
The biggest obstacle standing in his way may be his own mental belief.
Djokovic may have contested five consecutive grand slam finals, he may have won a record-equalling sixth Australian Open title and he may be ranked number one in the world -- but for all his confidence, he knows that he has had 11 failed attempts to win the ultimate prize in claycourt tennis.
Despite becoming only the second man to beat Nadal at Roland Garros, Djokovic still walked away without the trophy last year as his win over the Spaniard was achieved in the quarter-finals.
By the time he got to the final, he had run out of ideas and was powerless to stop Stan Wawrinka from running away with the spoils.
“(I‘m) very hungry (for Paris),” Djokovic said after beating Andy Murray in the Melbourne Park final on Sunday to win his 11th grand slam title.
”Even though I won last four out of five grand slams, I don’t take anything for granted.
“I want to improve as everybody else. I‘m not here because I played the same tennis I played last year. I feel like I‘m playing better.”
Murray, Federer and Nadal will certainly agree with that assessment as they all fell under his spell in the opening month of the 2016 season.
After humiliating Federer in the opening two sets of his 6-1 6-2 3-6 6-3 semi-final victory in Melbourne, Djokovic said it was “probably the best two sets I’ve played against Roger over my career”. That’s saying something for a decade-long rivalry that spans 45 matches.
Djokovic now has a better head-to-head against all three of his “Big Four” rivals. He leads Federer 23-22, Nadal 24-23 and Murray 22-9.
While Federer (17 majors), Nadal (14), Sampras (14) and Australian Roy Emerson (12) still top Djokovic in the list of all-time grand slam title holders, it is not inconceivable that within a few years, the Serb will have left everyone in his wake.
But at the French Open, Djokovic will have to deal with the pressure of completing his collection of grand slam titles.
Should he match Laver’s feat of winning four slams in a row, the 28-year-old will have to find some new superlatives to describe his form.
“No doubt that I‘m playing the best tennis of my life in the last 15 months. It’s phenomenal,” said Djokovic.
“I always strive to improve not just the game or technically, tactically, but also mentally. I don’t want to think how far my boundaries are.”
Reporting by Pritha Sarkar Editing by Alison Williams