SPORTING LIFE

Another shot to fill up the only empty space in Djokovic's CV

In sport, a dream becomes a chase. A chase may become an obsession. An obsession can become a curse. Years go by and a title stays elusive. It's all people want to ask you. Not the 64 titles you've won, but the one you haven't. Not the 12 titles on clay in Madrid, Rome, Estoril, Monte Carlo, but the one missing in Paris. Novak Djokovic, thrice finalist, four times semi-finalist, knows he is more than skilled enough to win the French Open. Which is precisely why it must chafe. It is as if he is No. 1 of the entire planet outside Paris.

Roland Garros is a place of spin, shale, sweat, where champions must own a sculptor's patience: Every point must be chiselled away. Roland Garros should be a stroll down the Seine for Djokovic, whose 16,150 ranking points is nearly double that of No. 2 Andy Murray (8,435) and treble that of No. 5 Rafael Nadal (5,675).

Yet Roland Garros will be testing because Djokovic's greatness sits unevenly here. He swore last year in Paris that "pressure is part of what I do. I got used to it". But you never quite do. Not completely. It builds and then tightens like a noose. This year, for instance, his ankle's been hurting, Murray beat him in Rome, he scrapped with umpires, chucked a racket and knows he can't be the best bloody player ever - and why else is he playing - until his name is on the winner's board at 2 Avenue Gordon Bennett.

This is the thrill, for us and for them: the hunt. The fixation on a prize, the failing, the returning, the trying. At golf's US Open, Phil Mickelson holds a record he never craved: runner-up six times. "It's very heartbreaking," he said one year. "It really stings," he said another. Ron Clarke, the distance runner, would have agreed: He broke 17 world records - nine of them in a 21-day streak - yet never won Olympic gold. It's bad luck, it's bad timing, it's a bad day, till it all combines to feel like a conspiracy.

In Bjorn Borg's book, My Life And Game, his US Open torment is neatly detailed: in 1976, an intestinal infection; in 1977, a shoulder injury; in 1978, a thumb so painful it required injections; in 1979, something as hurtful: Roscoe Tanner's big serving under lights. Life had ganged up on him. In 1981, when Borg lost his fourth Open final, he shook hands with John McEnroe, didn't wait for the prize ceremony, walked off court, out of the stadium and out of tennis forever. Six French, five Wimbledons, zero US Opens.

Decoding the surface is not Djokovic's dilemma... He merely keeps running into Nadal in Paris (six times). And then last year when he beat the Spaniard, he was flattened by Stan Wawrinka and his own nerves. This Open is still in his hands but it's also in his head.

No one wants this blank space on their CV or an asterisk by their name for it represents a smudge on their legacy. It suggests incomplete skill and this is an affront to the athlete's ego and this ego is a formidable thing. Triathlete Chris McCormack once told me that at 16 he wrote down a list of 28 races he was going to win. He was right 28 times.

For most great athletes, can't is a baffling word. There is no golf course they can't negotiate, no tennis surface they can't master. If it requires sacking an old coach, recreating a shooting range at home or visiting a faith healer, then fine. The essence of the hunt is the willingness to go to any extremity to win. For Ivan Lendl this, incredibly, meant skipping one Slam to win another.

Robin Finn of the New York Times captured Lendl elegantly in 1993 when she described him as the "haunted Lear of Wimbledon". On these lawns he looked even more hollowed out, a gaunt baseliner being taunted by grass as he tried to conquer serve-volley country.

In 1987, Lendl told UPI: "I want to win Wimbledon and to do that I would gladly forfeit my French title and throw in last year's as well." In 1989 he decided to skip the French in 1990 and said: "My whole focus is to prepare for Wimbledon. I don't care if I win another tournament, but I want to win Wimbledon."

Twice a runner-up, five times a semi-finalist, he never did. Grass eventually was a language always a little too foreign for Lendl. He came from Ostrava, a Czech town famous once for steel, but grass demanded a flexibility he did not own.

Decoding the surface is not Djokovic's dilemma. He's not Justine Henin (two finals, three semi-finals at Wimbledon) who couldn't unravel grass, he's different, he's educated in the grammar of clay, he's fluent in the syntax of sliding, he merely keeps running into Nadal in Paris (six times). And then last year when he beat the Spaniard, he was flattened by Stan Wawrinka and his own nerves. This Open is still in his hands but it's also in his head.

Only seven men in 139 years have won all four Slams and Djokovic craves membership of this tribe. In one sense it is an easier task than in the 1980s for surfaces have slowed, serve and volley has died, everyone plays the same style and tennis' test of transition from slow clay to slick grass has become simpler. Yet in another sense, at least for the last 12 years, it has been a tougher task for to win a Slam meant subduing Roger Federer on fast courts and taming Nadal on slow courts, both of whom protected their kingdoms as Horatius did his bridge.

But now Federer's body has started its uprising and Nadal, even if his forehand seems restored and confidence restitched, is not yet at full throttle. Now is also five sets which means rivals must be better and fitter than Djokovic for longer.

Now, again, is the Serb's chance and he'll know at 29 - it's his birthday today - he has time and yet that is perhaps what Ken Rosewall believed as well. The legendary Australian, who wrote that "from the time I first held a tennis racket I've thought of winning Wimbledon", was a finalist there in 1954 and in 1974 and twice in between. He won every other Slam yet never this. But Djokovic, who seems to solve geometry problems while on a skateboard, is too brilliant to be denied.

The Serb is uncharitably regarded as mechanical by some, but machines don't cry and last year he did. At the post-final ceremony in Paris the crowd applauded him for minutes on end, an emotional acknowledgement of his pain and a recognition of his pursuit. They saw not a robot but a human player whose dream had escaped him again. Djokovic will never forget that audible praise, but this year he might prefer to simply weep over his prize.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 22, 2016, with the headline 'Another shot to fill up the only empty space in Djokovic's CV'. Print Edition | Subscribe