Relieved Djokovic Resumes Quest to Boost Grand Slam Tally at French Open

Defending champion Serbia's Novak Djokovic speaks next to the cup during the draw of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Thursday, May 19, 2022. (AP)
Defending champion Serbia's Novak Djokovic speaks next to the cup during the draw of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Thursday, May 19, 2022. (AP)
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Relieved Djokovic Resumes Quest to Boost Grand Slam Tally at French Open

Defending champion Serbia's Novak Djokovic speaks next to the cup during the draw of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Thursday, May 19, 2022. (AP)
Defending champion Serbia's Novak Djokovic speaks next to the cup during the draw of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Thursday, May 19, 2022. (AP)

Novak Djokovic was ready to skip Grand Slams rather than take a COVID-19 vaccine following the Australian Open fiasco, but the world number one has been building up steam in a stop-start season to peak in time for his French Open title defense.

The 20-times Grand Slam champion was unable to defend his Australian Open title in January after being deported from the country, having initially been admitted to the tournament despite not taking the vaccine.

Djokovic began his season late in Dubai and was knocked off top spot following a shock loss to qualifier Jiri Vesely in the quarter-finals before pulling out of Indian Wells and Miami as he was unable to gain entry into the United States.

The Serbian risked being frozen out of Roland Garros as well due to his vaccine stance but earned a reprieve when France lifted restrictions in almost all public spaces in March.

The claycourt swing in April produced mixed results as the 34-year-old was stunned by Alejandro Davidovich Fokina early in Monte Carlo and Andrey Rublev in the Belgrade final, before he fell to red-hot Carlos Alcaraz in the Madrid semis this month.

But after capturing his first title in over six months without dropping a set at the Italian Open last week, Djokovic showed he was one of the top contenders ahead of his bid for a 21st Grand Slam crown to move level with Rafa Nadal.

"To some extent it's a relief because after everything that happened at the beginning of the year, it was important to win a big title," said Djokovic, who won his sixth crown in Rome and sealed his 1,000th tour-level win along the way.

"Especially with Grand Slams coming up, where I want to play my best and be at the level of confidence ... to have a chance to win the title."

'Perfect preparation'

Djokovic reiterated that he would use his hardship in a tumultuous year as fuel for the remainder of the season after he dismantled Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-0 7-6(5) in the Rome final.

"Anything I was really looking for in Rome I got," said Djokovic, who also beat world number four Tsitsipas in last year's French Open title clash.

"It's the perfect preparation and lead-up to Roland Garros. I'm going to Paris with confidence and good feelings about my chances. With the rankings and the way I've been playing in the last few weeks, I'd rate myself as one of the favorites."

Nadal's foot injury before the year's second Grand Slam may reinforce Djokovic's claims, but Spanish 19-year-old Alcaraz -- who beat both players en route to the Madrid title and looks primed for major success -- represents a hurdle.

"I don't obviously spend too much time thinking who's going to win it or who might have the best chance," Djokovic said. "I always think about myself.

"I go there with the highest ambitions... Obviously the draw is not something you can affect, but it's going to determine my trajectory to the later stages.

"Best of five sets, you play every second day. It's a Grand Slam. It's different ... you have to approach it differently."



Still Plenty of Fear for Real Madrid Coach Ancelotti Despite Champions League Final Successes 

Real Madrid's Italian coach Carlo Ancelotti gives a press conference at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on May 27, 2024 ahead of their Champions League final football match against Borussia Dortmund. (AFP)
Real Madrid's Italian coach Carlo Ancelotti gives a press conference at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on May 27, 2024 ahead of their Champions League final football match against Borussia Dortmund. (AFP)
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Still Plenty of Fear for Real Madrid Coach Ancelotti Despite Champions League Final Successes 

Real Madrid's Italian coach Carlo Ancelotti gives a press conference at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on May 27, 2024 ahead of their Champions League final football match against Borussia Dortmund. (AFP)
Real Madrid's Italian coach Carlo Ancelotti gives a press conference at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on May 27, 2024 ahead of their Champions League final football match against Borussia Dortmund. (AFP)

Carlo Ancelotti is going into his eighth Champions League final, having won all but one of them.

He is the most successful coach in the competition thanks to four titles. He also lifted two European trophies as a player.

There is no lack of experience for the veteran Italian manager. But there is still plenty of anxiety and fear for Ancelotti ahead of yet another big game.

“It’s the same as it was the first time,” the 64-year-old Ancelotti said as Real Madrid entered the final week of preparations ahead of Saturday’s final against Borussia Dortmund in London.

“First there is the joy of being here, then the concerns will come and the fear will come,” he said. “But before they come we have to enjoy this week and I’m going to enjoy it. The cold sweat will arrive Saturday afternoon, it’s normal, I’m already prepared for it. And this team gives me a lot of confidence, I see them focused on the match, they are in Champions (League) mode.”

Ancelotti won the Champions League with Madrid in 2022 and 2014, and with AC Milan in 2003 and 2007. He lost the 2005 edition with AC Milan in a final in a penalty shootout against Liverpool after squandering a 3-0 lead.

His European triumphs as a player came with Milan in 1989 and 1990. He was also in the squad with Roma when it reached the 1984 final but he sat out injured.

Ancelotti said he will stick to his routine before the final at Wembley Stadium.

“I’m a bit superstitious but it’s very normal. I was told that it’s bad luck not to be superstitious,” he said. “I like to eat broccoli, salmon and pasta, and that’s what I’ll eat. Then I’ll have an hour’s nap, if I’m able to. And then I’ll start thinking about the match. Before the talk with the players, my heart will start to rise to 110 or 120 beats. It’ll stay up there until the start of the game, and when it starts it will go back to its normal rhythm.”

Ancelotti said some of his most memorable Champions League highlights are linked to his time with Madrid, including the incredible run in 2022, when it had to rally several times to make it to the final. He also mentioned the late comeback in the semifinal against Bayern Munich a few weeks ago, when Joselu scored in the 88th minute and in stoppage time.

Ancelotti said this season was especially difficult because of the long list of injuries to some of the team’s key players, including serious knee problems to Thibaut Courtois, Éder Militão and David Alaba. Also missing time because of injuries were Vinícius Júnior, Jude Bellingham, Eduardo Camavinga and Aurélien Tchouaméni.

“Attitude and commitment have been the key to overcoming all the problems we’ve had,” Ancelotti said. “That’s what allowed us to have a fantastic season.”

Madrid, which also won the Spanish league and the Spanish Super Cup, is trying to win its sixth European Cup in 10 seasons, matching a feat the club also achieved from 1955-65.

Ancelotti said he prides himself more about the way he has managed his locker rooms than his teams’ tactics over the years.

“Personal relationships are more important than professional relationships,” he said. “I’m not a psychologist but I’m experienced as I’ve worked for many years in locker rooms. I try to treat people with respect not only in tactical aspects but also in personal aspects. I’m in an environment with 50 people and I spend more time with them than with my wife and children. So if there are not good relationships and there is not a good atmosphere, then I’m not doing my job.”