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Djokovic brings French to his game

Such has been Novak Djo-kovic's dominance over the past two years that at times it has seemed as if a greater power has lent him a helping hand.

The 26-year-old has won five of the past nine Grand Slams, denying Andy Murray in two of them, reached two other Grand Slam finals and opened up a huge lead at the top of the world rankings. The only thing missing from his resumé is a French Open title and, although seven-times champion Rafael Nadal is the favourite, the Serb believes this is his time.

"I believe in destiny," he says, perched on the corner of a sofa. Should he emerge victorious next week, Djokovic will emulate Nadal, Roger Federer, Andre Agassi and the four other men, including Fred Perry, who have won all four Grand Slam titles in their career.

"Your place in history is very important. Not many athletes, not many tennis players, experience and have the privilege to have their names in the books.

"Knowing I've already done something that makes me part of history [winning titles and being No 1] makes me feel incredibly proud. But there is still a long way to go. I'm 26. I feel that I'm at the peak of my career but I still have many years in front of me. Hopefully, I'm going to make some new history, but I'm going to try to take it slowly because thinking too much ahead or too much behind can really disturb the moment. That's something that I've learned over the years."

When it comes to winning titles at the very top level, experience is everything. Players who learn from their losses, who can take something positive from a heartbreaking experience, tend to come back stronger.

Twelve months ago, Djokovic arrived in Paris chasing his fourth straight Grand Slam title, a non-calendar-year Grand Slam, and came very close, losing to Nadal in a four-set match that spanned two days because of rain.

Having dropped the first two sets, Djokovic had won eight straight games to take the third set and was leading by a break of serve in the fourth before the rains came. Not surprisingly, Djokovic wanted to play on and an hour after the match was called off on the Sunday night, Paris was bathed in sunshine. When they returned next day, his momentum had gone.

"I really wanted to play," Djokovic says. "Who wouldn't have wanted to play? I had won eight games in a row. I was in the fourth set, up by a break, I felt great. I think it was close to 8pm, 7.45 or whatever. Then I think sunset was, like, 9.15. It was still light, you could still play. So I think in that hour's space I could do some more good things on the court.

"I remember that I was talking to a supervisor and I said: 'I want to play.' They made a decision not to play. Why? How? For what reason? I don't know." Back to destiny. "Maybe I could have won if we had continued that day. But at the end of the day it wasn't to be. Maybe this year it's going to be. I still keep believing it is the year for Roland Garros."

Djokovic's belief in destiny does not quite stretch to the point where he thinks everything is predetermined, but the world No 1 believes in the power of the mind. He will need an iron will if he is to win the title because he is scheduled to play Nadal in the semifinals.

The Spaniard, whose only loss here, in 2009, came against Sweden's Robin Soderling, has won six tournaments out of eight, including Madrid and Rome, since February, when he returned from seven months out with knee trouble.

Djokovic has beaten him once on clay this year, in the final in Monte Carlo, and he will go into the tournament with confidence. "Prior to Roland Garros, Monte Carlo is the most important tournament on clay and I won against the best player on this surface, Nadal," he says. "That win against him can give me that necessary mental belief, self-belief."

Djokovic admits that losing to Nadal here last year set him back for a few months. Though he reached the semifinals at Wimbledon and the Olympics, it was not until the US Open that he got his game back, losing narrowly to Murray in the final. Having won the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals in London, he then denied Murray, missing here this fortnight because of a back injury, to win the Australian Open.

All he might need, he says, is the help of the notoriously fickle French crowd, whose love of Federer outshines even that for some of their own players at times. Djokovic thrives in adversity but, should he find himself cast as the villain, he has a trick up his sleeve.

"I've been learning French," he says, with a smile. "I'm trying to learn it more and more lately. I feel obliged in a way because I also live in Monaco, where the official language is French. But, if I want to do well in Roland Garros, I will also have to learn French. That's what I feel. That's something that's missing, that part."

The only other thing missing is the Djokovic name on the Coupe des Mousquetaires. Perhaps not for too much longer. – © Guardian News & Media 2013

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