To play or not to play? That seems to have been the question for some of the world’s top tennis players this week as they prepare for the French Open.
Roger Federer and Serena Williams both decided no. As did Rafael Nadal. As did Iga Swiatek. As did almost everyone actually, except for Novak Djokovic. The world No 1 is in action in his home country as he plays the Belgrade Open, bidding to ensure his game is "perfectly tuned" for the French Open.
There are a few factors at play here. Firstly, Djokovic is playing in Serbia, which prior to this season hadn’t hosted a tennis tournament in nine years. Now it has hosted two in a month.
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"It is always very special to play in Serbia," said Djokovic, who is in the same half of the draw as both Nadal and Federer in Paris, ahead of the Belgrade Open.
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"I think the success of a nation in tennis depends a lot on the amount of tournaments that are played in that country."
Djokovic’s last title in Serbia was in 2011, but it would be a surprise – barring injury or withdrawal - if he didn’t finish this week with silverware. The draw is not particularly strong, with out-of-form Gael Monfils the second seed and world No 31 Nikoloz Basilashvili the third seed.
And Djokovic seems to be finding form on clay. He has been trending upwards over the last month after one of his “worst performances” in recent years contributed to a surprise defeat to Dan Evans in his second match at the Monte-Carlo Masters. He made the semi-finals of the Serbia Open in his next outing – albeit having only won two matches – and then lost to Nadal in three sets in the final of the Italian Open.
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A tournament win this week would complete a neat trajectory as he looks to hit the French Open in top form.
"I’ve been setting up everything to peak in Paris," he said ahead of the Belgrade Open. "Here it’s about matchplay and it’s about working on certain specific details in my game that hopefully I’ll be able to tweak them and to make them perfectly tuned in Paris. That’s definitely where I want to shine and it’s a Grand Slam."
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Djokovic says the fine tuning includes "sets of specific exercises aimed at bolstering my speed and making me more dynamic".
Peaking for majors is something of a new concept for Djokovic. He spoke about it earlier this year when he won the Australian Open, saying he needs to "be smarter with my schedule and peak at the right time" in order to "perform my best" at the majors. His change of focus is partly due to breaking Federer’s all-time record for weeks as world No 1, partly due to wanting to spend more time with his family, and partly so that he can overtake Federer and Nadal at the top of the Grand Slam standings.
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But will it work for Djokovic?
This is the first time that he is playing a tournament the week before the French Open and in recent years he has almost always had time off immediately before a major. While he says he is just planning to do some fine tuning to his game in Belgrade, he could still be exerted during matches, and there is the risk of injury. If he wins the tournament then he will also have a quick turnaround from the final on Saturday to his first match in Paris early next week.
Sometimes players speak about playing themselves into form and peaking in the second week of a tournament, but Djokovic seems like he is aiming to hit top form in the first week. "I found the game," he said after losing to Nadal in Rome. "So now I just have to maintain it, that level, and peak in Paris."
Can ‘peak’ Djokovic beat Nadal over five sets in Paris? The head-to-head record could hardly be closer – Djokovic leads 29-28 – but Nadal hasn’t lost on clay to his rival in five years. And will two weeks of rest help Nadal hit his peak at the right moment at the French Open?
With Grand Slams such a valuable commodity for Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Williams, it’s intriguing to see how they prepare in their attempts to win another. Williams has severely cut down on the number of tournaments she has played over the last few years – perhaps leaving her with not enough match practice going into the second weeks of majors – and Djokovic and Nadal are also prioritising. Federer’s plans beyond the summer remain to be seen, but he has said Wimbledon is his "huge goal" for this year.
Clearly all four are trying to find the best balance for the different stages of their careers. But has Djokovic got it right ahead of the French Open?
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