Novak Djokovic's decision to skip next week's mandatory Madrid Open sends a clear message: Roland Garros or bust. With the French Open just three weeks away, here's why Djokovic's decision to forego Madrid could finally lead to a breakthrough in Paris.
1. The career Slam
The Serb already made history by becoming the first player ever to win the first three ATP Masters events of the season in Indian Wells, Miami and Monte Carlo. Winning all nine Masters in one year would be an incredible feat—one that would likely never be matched—and for a player whose accomplishments continue to, rather unfairly, sit in the shadow of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, this would set him apart. But Djokovic's decision to skip Madrid sent one loud and true message to the rest of the field: Roland Garros or bust. This year, he's healthy and playing some of the best tennis of his career. Meanwhile, Nadal seems to be struggling to find his game. This is a huge opportunity for Djokovic to finally complete the career Slam.
2. Madrid's conditions
The keys for Djokovic right now are to stay healthy, rested and confident going into Paris. With that in mind, Madrid's conditions are nothing similar to the conditions in Paris and the quick change would not be helpful if Djokovic felt the need to fine-tune his game. In Madrid's altitude, the conditions are faster and the ball can fly, and if Djokovic did play, he would be forced to make yet another adjustment with the Italian Open the following week. Players constantly complain about the adjustments leading to injuries and a derailment in form—no need for Djokovic to risk either next week.
3. Points to defend
The World No. 1 is not defending any points this year in Madrid, but points aren't even on his mind at the moment. According to the ATP's Greg Sharko, Djokovic currently holds the biggest lead in points (5,460) over the No. 2 (in this case Federer) in the Open Era. In the ATP's Race to London rankings, which only take into account the points earned in the current season, Djokovic has more than twice the number of points than the No. 2, Tomas Berdych. He's secure in his No. 1 ranking for the near future and will be the No. 1 seed at Roland Garros.
Djokovic has won the last six big ATP tournaments, dating back to the Paris Indoor Masters. He is on a 17-match win streak. All this while his main rival on clay, Nadal, is racing to find his best level before the French Open. In the last three years, Djokovic's results in Rome and Monte Carlo have been better indicators of his French Open success than Madrid.
As for the theory that he needs more match play before Paris, consider the fact that he went into the French Open the last two years with just nine matches under his belt in the lead-ups. Opting to skip Madrid means he'll go into Paris with no more than ten. During his 2011 tear, Djokovic won Belgrade, Madrid and Rome, and was 13-0 heading into the French Open, primed to win his first French Open title. He lost to Federer in the semifinals.
Since the tournament became an outdoor clay court Masters event in 2009, the Madrid Open has never been particularly kind to Djokovic. He has won the tournament just once, during his banner 2011 season, but the Spanish capital has otherwise been an inhospitable place. The Spanish crowd has seemingly never forgiven him for beating Nadal in that 2011 final, a win that paved the way for Djokovic to become the primary challenger to Nadal's dominance on clay. He was booed in 2013—and responded by cursing out the crowd—en route to a three-set loss to Grigor Dimitrov in the second round. He has not played in Madrid since. Last year he skipped the tournament due to a wrist injury.
His treatment in Madrid is even more jarring given the two tournaments that sandwich the event. The Monte Carlo Masters take place in his backyard—Djokovic has lived there for years—and he's treated as an adopted Roman at the Italian Open, where he has made the final five times and won on three occasions.