The French Open begins Sunday, and the toast of tennis is not Rafael Nadal.
The man who has owned the red clay at Roland Garros in Paris since he first stepped on it in 2005 is now owned by somebody else.
Astonishingly, the favorite to win the men's singles title, second of the four majors of the year, is a Serb with a rock jaw, sharply angled face, and a backhand and forehand that have hit every line from every angle for the last six months.
Novak Djokovic has arrived. Tennis has a comet, and he is it. In his seven years on the ATP Tour, he has been very, very good - No. 3 since 2007 and No. 2 since he won in March at Indian Wells. But all that time, the men's tour has been mostly a discussion about the fading No. 1, Roger Federer, and the hard-charging new top dog, Nadal.
For the last several years, men's tennis has crossed its fingers and said its prayers at every tour stop that the final would match Federer and Nadal. The sport yearned for that like horse racing yearns for another Triple Crown winner. Djokovic, and to a lesser degree Andy Murray of Scotland, were pretty much around to fill the other semifinal brackets.
What Djokovic is doing this tennis season, in a sport where No. 100 is good enough to give No. 1 a dangerous match, is amazing. And it is so much more than the 39-match winning streak, beginning with his last two in the Davis Cup in December and the next 37 this year. It is how he is doing it, and to whom.
When he beat Nadal in the final of the Madrid tournament May 8, he broke a 0-9 drought on clay against the world's No. 1 player. Nadal had lost one match there in the last three years.
But when he did it again Sunday, a week later, it had jaws dropping all over the sport. Nadal had lost just one match in six years in the Italian Open in Rome. Much like he did at Roland Garros and Monte Carlo, Nadal owned Rome. In addition, Nadal had played his semifinal earlier on Saturday and cruised through in two sets. Djokovic had slugged it out for nearly three hours before beating Murray in a three-set match described by many writers and broadcasters there as "epic."
Djokovic should have been too tired to prevail against a fresher Nadal. Djokovic won, 6-4, 6-4. Nadal said, "He is simply doing amazing things."
That victory marked Djokovic's fourth straight this year against an almost always unbeatable and irrepressible Nadal. That started with the Indian Wells final and went on to the Miami final in early April, before Madrid and Rome. Had you taken $100 to Las Vegas and wagered that that would happen, you'd be a rich person now. The odds on that were inconceivable.
Until recently, the image many U.S. tennis fans had of Djokovic was of his late-night show a few years ago at the U.S. Open. One of the TV announcers asked if he would do some of the imitations he does of other players. He hesitatingly agreed, then had the place in an uproar with his spoof of Maria Sharapova (her little meeting with herself, her back to the court, before every service point, and her quick brush back of her hair) and Nadal (his sprints onto the court and his tugs on his underpants).
That did little to discourage his nickname: "The Djoker."
But this year has been all serious business for the baseline banger from Belgrade. Previously, he had run out of gas, even defaulted out of major tournaments with various illnesses and aches and pains.
Now, he works with two trainers who worked with former No. 1 player Thomas Muster.
He will probably take over the No. 1 spot from Nadal in the months ahead, especially because the ATP ranking system puts a premium on defending points won the previous year. Nadal won the French, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open last year, and anything less than a repeat of that opens the door for Djokovic.