PARIS -- Everyone has a "dream" and, God knows, they can't stop talking about it. There's no word more overused or abused as a vague stand-in for ambition, hope, aim or idea. We hear, "It's my lifelong dream to go to Paris", and nod -- especially when the TV is flashing seductive pictures of red clay and Eiffel Tower. But has anybody actually dreamed of getting frisked by security, of not sleeping on an overnight cattle-car of a flight, of stuttering through a dinner order to an officious French waiter? Tennis players love to say, "I've always dreamed of winning Roland Garros." But no one ever responds, "Really? Every night?"
Still, if Novak Djokovic has earned anything -- besides countless millions and the enduring love of his fellow Serbs -- with this historic run this spring, it's the right to mangle his second, or third, language with impunity. Sticklers be damned, at least for one afternoon: On Friday Djokovic, 24, will play a tennis match that will either grant his dearest wish or stop the dream season cold.
Of course, if he beats Roger Federer in the 2011 French Open's glamour semifinal, Djokovic will be playing -- weather permitting -- for his first title at Roland Garros come Sunday. He'll also be going for his 45th straight victory, and a record-breaking 43rd to start the season. But to Djokovic, only one number really matters -- the one he first made public as a seven-year old prodigy on Serbian TV. With a win over Federer, Djokovic will supplant Rafael Nadal atop the world rankings, and become No. 1 for the first time.
"I always had very high ambitions and that's how it's going to stay," said Djokovic, in Belgrade five weeks ago. "Obviously No. 1 ranking is still far away. Even though I've been winning every match I play this year. I still need to do more. If I ever get to that No. 1 in the world, that would be a dream come true for me. That's always been my life dream."
Federer, too, has something to play for: The 16-time Grand Slam winner hasn't won a major since the 2010 Australian Open, and he'd love to quiet the clamoring carpers (Guilty!) who insist that his best days are done. It's not yet clear if Djokovic enjoyed or endured the four-day rest he's had since the quarterfinal withdrawal of Fabio (The Great) Fognini made him disappear, but Federer was happy to send him a message. "He has a lot on the line, which we all know about," Federer said Tuesday, after his win over Gael Monfils left him the only man standing who has yet to drop a set. "There's less at stake for me than for him. He's got a lot of things going on."
On the surface, you wouldn't know it. Djokovic has betrayed no irritation and few nerves throughout his flawless, six-month ride, and the prospect snapping John McEnroe's season-opening streak of 42 here, or Guillermo Vilas' record of 46 straight wins soon after, has hardly fazed him. In all ways, he has seemed at ease with the at times goofy, at times stirring, places his more powerful serve and supreme conditioning have taken him, as if assuming a role he expected to play his whole life. "Compare Novak to four years ago, I don't see any weaknesses," says his close friend and Davis Cup teammate, Nenad Zimonjic.
"He's very fit. He's very focused. This is something he always wanted to do. He's not getting ahead of himself. The next match, the next opponent: That's the only thing he's thinking about at the moment. He's doing everything perfectly now."
He's hardly doing it alone. Djokovic began parroting the faith of his father as a schoolboy; Srdjan, a top-flight skier with no experience in tennis, made sure his eldest son had first crack at the household's best food and equipment, gambled with the family's finances to send him to Niki Pilic's academy in Munich, would tell any intrigued coach or agent how his Nole would be great one day. In 2006, Djokovic was struggling to navigate the top 100 and his own emotions, with Srdjan thinking of selling his skills to the desperate souls at England's Lawn Tennis Association. When the two met Marian Vajda for an audition on a Roland Garros practice court, Vajda was met with the sight of Djokovic smashing rackets in a tantrum
"His father said, 'He will be No. 1 in the world,'" says Vajda, Djokovic's coach ever since. "I was like, 'are you joking?'"
Djokovic cracked the top 20 near the end of that year and his father tried congratulating him. "When I'm No. 1, then you can congratulate me," Novak said. The next summer, after Djokovic made the French Open and Wimbledon semis, Srdjan would laugh at Vajda and say, "Did you believe me?" And Vajda would say no.
Everyone, of course, is believing now. One more win today, over the greatest player in the game's history, and Djokovic will arrive. It is everything, and it will be impossible not to think about.
"Everybody expects him to win, and he's going to have somewhere in his head that if he wins he's No. 1," says former No. 2 Goran Ivanisevic, who has known Djokovic for a decade. "Not too much that he's maybe going to win the French Open, but that he's going to be No. 1. That is going to be there."
"It's so much pressure," says Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the Russian star who squandered numerous chances to become No. 1 before finally grasping the top ranking in 1999. "What if he doesn't win today? He might never become no. 1 -- hypothetically, but there's a chance. I had three chances to become No. 1 by winning a major and all those three matches I lost. It was affecting my game, it was affecting me psychologically. It's not an easy task. Not at all."
No man can truly prepare for the moment when his "dream" -- and the longevity of Djokovic's quest, the quality of his run, the fact that his boyhood idol was the greatest No. 1 of all, Pete Sampras, makes it right to call it exactly that -- materializes at last. Today, for the first time, it is there for him, waiting to be grasped. All that's left is the taking.