PARIS — The French Open remains the unparalleled meanie. Not only did it become the last tennis Grand Slam to huff at Andre Agassi, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, but it seems bent on spending the rest of this week howling at Djokovic.
By daring to stage its roofless Slam under a sky that spent recent days crying, the French wound up with stop-start matches, don’t-start matches and unbalanced draws. Coming out in the wash, two men eyeball a semifinal set for Friday, while Djokovic and three other men await quarterfinals set for Thursday with only hopes of Friday semifinals.
“You have to adjust,” Djokovic, 29, chirped with the grace of a veteran who has held down No. 1 for the past 99 weeks — and for 200 weeks in his career. Reminded that he might have to play Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday to get the only big cup he lacks, he said, “That’s an ideal scenario right there.”
He meant it graciously, toward his rivals: “Let’s see, first of all, whether or not I can win my quarterfinal.”
Everyone else enjoys the luxury of peeking way down the pike.
As of Wednesday midnight in Paris, five men remained potential grinches as Djokovic aims for two immense feats: becoming only the fourth man since Rod Laver to win all four of the majors (after Agassi, Federer and Rafael Nadal), and becoming the first man since Laver in 1969 to hold all four at once. None of the lingering five has the surname “Federer” or “Nadal,” yet none of the five ranks lower than No. 15.
They are No. 8 Tomas Berdych, Djokovic’s quarterfinal opponent; No. 13 David Goffin or No. 15 Dominic Thiem potentially after that; and No. 4 Stanislas Wawrinka or No. 2 Andy Murray potentially after that. Djokovic is 23-3 against Berdych, 2-0 against the 22-year-old pup Thiem, 4-0 against Goffin, 23-10 against Murray (including 7-2 in Grand Slams) and 19-4 vs. Wawrinka (including four grueling dramas in the past 10 Slams, among those Wawrinka’s four-set win in the 2015 French final).
Agassi got his elusive French on his 11th try, in 1999, four years after he had three of the Slams; Federer got his on his 11th try, in 2009, five years after he had three; and Djokovic is trying a 12th time, five years after he got three. Only Nadal, a special case by any standard, got the French out of the way first.
In a world full of good tennis players who would revel at winning one French Open match, Djokovic has won 52, over players from 28 countries, from Peru to Kazakhstan to Taiwan. He has gotten close enough to go mad, with two final weekends (2012 and 2015) complicated with suspended matches and one otherworldly 2013 semifinal (with Nadal) hinging on a horde of small moments like the one when Djokovic lost a point because he toppled into the net.
He lost the 2014 final after which winner Nadal said, “He deserves to win this tournament,” and he has lost a 2015 final after which winner Wawrinka said, “I hope he will get one one day because he deserves one.”
Yet he’s still not there somehow, and now he will have to aim through the back-end briar patch of a funky tournament in which Djokovic’s fourth-round match with Roberto Bautista Agut began Sunday and ended Wednesday. It’s a tournament in which the dominant chatter concerns proper philosophy in managing rain delays — when to send out players, when to bring them in. Goffin: “[Tuesday] was a nightmare. I was waiting all day. I was completely exhausted in the evening.” Ernests Gulbis, who lost to Goffin: “It’s nature, you know, but what I really think is that players shouldn’t walk out on court while it’s raining. That’s the only thing.” Berdych: “In the end you don’t really see that it’s more about players than about the tournament.”
Djokovic: “It’s a very delicate subject,” and, “It’s hard to say,” and, “Bautista and I played, I think, more than two sets in the mist. But again, you know, once you accept the circumstances and the decision is such that you play, then you have to go with it.
“Of course I know that I can play better and have a couple more gears. That excites me, actually,” said a man primed to learn whether nothing can stop him.