Paris—Novak Djokovic admits he will be fired up by the fiasco of his high-profile deportation from Australia when he targets a record-equalling 21st major on his Grand Slam return at the French Open.
World number one Djokovic captured a second Roland Garros title in 2021 followed by a sixth Wimbledon to move to 20 majors alongside Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
However, his unseemly exit from Melbourne following his refusal to be vaccinated opened the door for Nadal to claim a second Australian Open and 21st Grand Slam crown.
“It’s something that I never faced before,” said Djokovic, who turns 35 on Sunday, the opening day of the French Open.
“The amount of pressure and everything that I was feeling in the first few months of the year, as much as I’ve felt pressure in my life and my career, that was something really on a whole different level.”
Djokovic has played only five tournaments in 2022 but arrives in Paris buoyed by a sixth Italian Open title, becoming just the fifth man to win 1,000 career matches in the process.
It was his 38th Masters triumph, two more than Nadal at the top of the all-time list.
He did not drop a set in Rome as he finished a memorable week with a final victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas, the man he defeated from two sets down in the 2021 French Open title match.
With 13-time French Open champion Nadal suffering a recurrence of a foot injury, another Spaniard is likely to be Djokovic’s biggest headache in Paris.
Carlos Alcaraz, just 19, has rocketed to six in the world on the back of four titles —three on clay—in 2022.
He won a second Masters title in Madrid, sweeping Nadal, Djokovic and third-ranked Alexander Zverev on the way.
“He definitely is special,” admitted Djokovic of Alcaraz who also claimed the prestigious Miami Masters earlier in the year.
Alcaraz was ranked 97 this time last year. He was only two when Nadal won the first of his 13 French Opens in 2005 but he made his mark at the 2021 tournament where he came through qualifying to reach the third round.
Djokovic has been responsible for two of only three losses suffered by Nadal in Paris.
One of those came in a bruising semi-final 12 months ago, the most recent clash of the pair’s epic 58-match rivalry.
Nadal comes into Paris with major question marks over his ability to lift a 14th title.
A rib injury in March was followed by the re-emergence in Rome of his chronic foot injury where he limped to defeat in the last-16.
The 35-year-old Spaniard is due to practice at Roland Garros for the first time on Wednesday where he will have his own doctor on hand to assess his fitness.
‘Living with injury’
“I am a player living with an injury; it is nothing new,” said Nadal, now ranked fifth in the world.
“Since I came back, the foot has been tough. It’s tough for me to be able to practice the proper way.”
Russian world number two Daniil Medvedev, who gave up a two-sets lead to lose to Nadal in the Australian Open final, only returned to action in Geneva this week after undergoing a hernia operation.
The US Open champion has 13 titles to his name but has yet to master the draining demands of clay.
At Roland Garros, he was winless in his first four visits before managing to stop the rot with a quarter-final run in 2021.
Medvedev is likely to use the ban on Russian players at Wimbledon this year as fuel for a surprise title tilt.
Greek world number four Tsitsipas has enjoyed a solid clay season.
He defended his Monte Carlo title before making the last-eight in Barcelona and semi-finals in Madrid.