Djokovic becomes the man to beat in France

For the first time in years at the French Open, the overwhelming favorite is not Rafael Nadal, the top-ranked Spaniard who has loomed like the Eiffel Tower over the red clay of Roland Garros.

Nadal is seeking his sixth French Open title in seven years, has an astounding 194-8 record on clay and is close to supplanting Bjorn Borg as the best clay court player in tennis history.

But the man everyone is talking about is No. 2 Novak Djokovic. The Serb, who celebrates his 24th birthday on the opening day of the tournament, is riding a 39-match winning streak, and his 37-0 record in 2011 — including 7-0 combined against Nadal and Roger Federer — is the best start to a season since John McEnroe won 42 in a row in 1984.

Once known primarily for his spot-on impersonations and humorous YouTube videos, "The Djoker" has gotten serious about fitness and nutrition (the son of a pancake-house owner is now gluten-free), tweaked his serve and forehand and broken up the Nadal-Roger Federer duopoly, which claimed 21 of 23 major titles from 2005 to '10. He is in position to take the No. 1 ranking in the coming weeks.

Djokovic has won all seven tournaments he has entered this year, including the Australian Open and the Sony Ericsson Open on Key Biscayne. He is 13-0 against top 10 players in 2011. With seven more victories, he will tie the record winning streak of 46, set by Guillermo Vilas in 1977.

Even Nadal says Djokovic is the man to beat after losing to him in back-to-back clay finals in Madrid and Rome the past three weeks.

"I think he is the great favorite," Nadal said Thursday in Paris. "He hasn't lost a match since the start of the year and he's playing in an incredible way.

"I do not fear Djokovic, but you have to applaud his success since the beginning of the year. This will be very difficult to repeat. I admire what he has done."

Mary Carillo, commentating for Tennis Channel from Paris, said she has become "a huge Djokovic fan," and commended him for "seeing daylight and gaining traction" in what seemed an impenetrable hold Nadal and Federer had on men's tennis.

Carillo said: "I think last year the world's number one was Rafa. He was also the world's most improved player. This year, Novak is the (world's best) player, and he is the most improved. I think the questions we always had about him were about his health and about his heart. He has answered these questions. He has just become a superlative tennis fighting machine.

"I am trying to think what anyone is doing better than Djokovic. To my mind, he has got the best forehand on tour right now and the best backhand. He is more prone to volley than any of the other top players in men's tennis. He has a tremendous return game. His serve has become a real weapon. He is the best mover. ... He's the man."

Djokovic said leading Serbia to the Davis Cup title in December injected him with a boost of confidence and pride, and his new diet has given him more energy and stamina.

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