WITH THE FRENCH OPEN set to begin on Sunday in Paris, let's bust out the art metaphors and make the case that Novak Djokovic is tennis's pointillist. Precise as they are, his individual strokes are not remarkable. They lack the rococo dexterity and lightness of Roger Federer's and the expressionist intensity of Rafael Nadal's. If you take a few steps back, however, and view Djokovic's shots as an accumulation, a masterpiece emerges. Over the last 18 months, the Djoker has been performing at a level that might have no precedent. He has won four of the last five major singles titles. He's hoarded almost twice as many rankings points as Andy Murray, who is ranked No. 2. After coming within a match of pulling off tennis's ultimate feat, the calendar Grand Slam, in 2015, Djokovic has a real shot at it in '16. But he must first win the French Open, the gaping hole—the big lacuna, as it were—in his credentials. Eleven years running, Djokovic has come to Paris with the grandest of ambitions. Eleven times he has left disappointed. By conquering Paris this year, however, he can not only complete his career Grand Slam but also hold all four major titles simultaneously, becoming the first man to do so since Rod Laver in 1969. (Call it the Djoker Slam.) Before heading to Roland Garros with designs on making history and subduing the seven opponents put before him, the player to beat sat down for a candid Q&A.
Q What do you think about your relationship with the French Open?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Most people think that because I have never won it and [because] I lost a couple of finals, I don't have very good memories of Roland Garros. On the contrary, I feel like I have a love affair with the tournament, because I grew up on clay, and I particularly enjoy that Grand Slam because it's played on clay. It's very close to where I live [in Monaco], and I have lots of family and friends coming to watch me play there. It has a special European feel. I look forward to going back to compete and, hopefully, get another chance to play for the trophy. Yes, it has been the only Grand Slam I have never won, but [it was the] same for Roger for many years, and then he managed to do it [in 2009]. So hopefully I can do it, but if I don't, it's not going to be the end of the world. I still have a lot of accomplishments I should be proud of.
Q Your play over the last 2½ years has been historic: 180--17 record, 23 titles, five majors. What have you learned about yourself?
ND: Well, I have learned [to have] self-belief and commitment, and [to use] the holistic approach. Not just in tennis, but in everything. It can pay off if you truly live it, if you truly believe in it. And I also learned that patience is a virtue. In the early stages of my professional career, I lacked a little bit of that patience, which I think is also a natural way of evolving. When you are young you want things to happen overnight, but I grew as a person and a player, and now I understand what life really is and what it represents to me. So I'm at the best possible point of my life. I managed to get married and become a father. [To do that] and to be the best in a sport that I am truly devoted to is remarkable for me, so I'm very grateful for that.
Q Was there an event that brought on this patience?
ND: I think it's maturity, but still it was a process. There were days and periods of my career when I went through a lot of doubt. But you overcome those moments with the help of people around you. I think it is very important that you surround yourself with positive people. People who are wise, who care about you, who care about your career, care about you living your dreams. Then you try to take the best out of those moments and learn, rather than think you are not good enough. Of course, I went through those moments when I had doubts I could become No. 1 and challenge Nadal and Federer, who were so dominant. But it was a process of growing up in every aspect of my being and my tennis career.
Q There's a certain moral authority, you might call it, that comes with being No. 1 in any sport. How have you thought about using your authority?
ND: Well, I believe that there's so much room for professional athletes, especially the ones who are successful and very influential, to use that authority to make a positive difference in people's lives. Obviously I'm very emotionally linked to my foundation's work, but I also would like to leave a legacy behind for the younger players. I would like to use this opportunity while I'm at the top to make sure there is a better sport for youngsters tomorrow. Of course, during my active career there is a lot going on, but I already feel like in the last 10 years the sport has changed, and this era of which I am part is fantastic. Hopefully tennis can go only upward in the future, and I want to be a part of that.
Q Does part of you miss that cluster at the top? The Big Three or Big Four? Or are you O.K. flying, soaring solo?
ND: I'm O.K. solo, honestly.
• For L. Jon Wertheim's full interview with Novak Djokovic as well as comprehensive match coverage, tune into The Tennis Channel's broadcast of the French Open, May 22--June 5.
"There were days and periods of my career when I WENT THROUGH A LOT OF DOUBT."
Photographs by CLIVE BRUNSKILL/Getty Images