(Reuters) – World number one Novak Djokovic said his Italian Open victory was the perfect time to find form as he looks to retain his French Open crown after mixed results earlier in the claycourt swing.
The 20-times Grand Slam winner was toppled by Alejandro Davidovich Fokina early in Monte Carlo and Andrey Rublev in the Belgrade final in April, before he fell to teenager Carlos Alcaraz in the Madrid semi-finals this month.
Unable to defend his Australian Open title due to his refusal to be vaccinated against COVID-19, Djokovic clinched his first title in more than six months when he won in Rome last week without dropping a set.
“This surface is the most demanding one… it requires a lot of effort mentally, emotionally, physically,” Djokovic told reporters on Friday. “For me, historically it has required some time and several tournaments to really feel comfortable playing on clay.
“Rarely did I feel my best on clay in the first or second tournament in the season. That was the case this season again. It took me two tournaments to really feel that I’m getting closer to the desired level.
“Rome has been a very successful tournament for me in my career, and it was really coming at the right time. I always managed to get to the later stages of that tournament in just the week before Paris, perfect time to really find form.”
Hoping to put his turbulent start to the season behind him, Djokovic said 13-times Roland Garros champion Rafa Nadal and the in-form Alcaraz were among the favourites to win at Roland Garros but added he was confident of replicating his success from last year.
Djokovic, who will be 35 on Sunday when he begins his title defence against Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka, would pull level with Nadal’s haul of 21 Grand Slam titles if he wins in Paris.
“Nadal always has to be right at the top, because of his records particularly at this tournament,” Djokovic said. “And then you have Alcaraz who is the story of men’s tennis in the last four or five months… He has made a quantum jump forward.
“I feel that I am always in contention to fight for any Grand Slam trophy. I believe in my own abilities. I believe in my own abilities to get far and to fight for one of the most prestigious trophies in the world of tennis.
“As a defending champion of course more so, (I) believe I can do it again. Reliving the memories from last year is something that obviously gives me goosebumps and motivation to try to replicate that.”
(Reporting by Hritika Sharma in Bengaluru; Editing by Toby Davis)