Today, both Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams start play as the favorites to win this year's French Open. And both of them are facing a level of pressure that could affect their chances.
We all watched Serena implode under the pressure at the US Open last year--the hype around winning the calendar-year Grand Slam obviously got to be too much. And then in the final in Melbourne back in January, she came out nervous and stressed and lost to a good player with a solid game plan and nothing to lose. That's pretty good evidence that she's feeling the pressure of equaling Steffi Graf's record. However, I said at the time that I thought that she'd actually given herself an edge for the rest of the year because there will be no talk of a calendar-year Slam. I predicted she'd equal and then beat Steffi's record. We'll see. At the very least, she did just get through Rome without losing a set.
On the other hand, Novak went in the opposite direction. We've gotten so accustomed to Novak winning in business- or even machine-like fashion that his struggles in Rome two weeks ago were incredibly fascinating. He was mentally off all week. He got bageled in the first set of his round-of-16 match against 57th-ranked Thomaz Bellucci before remembering that, oh yeah, he's Novak Djokovic. He handled his quarterfinal match against Rafa well, winning 7-5 7-6, but got considerably outplayed by Nishikori in the the first set of their semifinal, the same match that saw him get a well-deserved warning for unsportsmanlike conduct for petulantly but with some force batting a ball in the direction of a ball boy, only narrowly missing him. And in the final, he complained forcefully and continually that the light rain that fell made it unsafe to slide on the clay, but Andy Murray--usually the player in that pair that we think of as Mr. Meltdown--didn't seem to have any problems, and he dispatched Novak in straight sets.
So we've been left to wonder: in Novak's case, was a week of mental meltdown the result of accumulated fatigue, or was it the pressure amping up ahead of the French? He's had a week to regroup. We'll see how he looks as he starts the tournament.