PARIS — As daylight disappeared and wind whipped loose dirt around the court, Novak Djokovic watched one last ace fly off Roger Federer’s racket and end their thrill-a-minute semifinal at the 2011 French Open.
It’s been nearly a year since that evening, and Djokovic hasn’t lost a Grand Slam match since.
He’s won 21 in a row, earning championships at Wimbledon in July, the U.S. Open in September, and the Australian Open in January. If Djokovic can prolong that run on the red clay of Roland Garros over the next two weeks, he will become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win four consecutive major tennis tournaments.
A remarkable achievement, to be sure. And one the 25-year-old Serb is trying not to expend too much energy pondering before the French Open, which starts Sunday.
"It would definitely mean the world to me ... but I haven’t thought about that too much, because I do not want to put too much pressure on myself," the No. 1-ranked Djokovic said, then added with a laugh: "Pressure that I don’t need at this moment, because I already have enough."
He insists he wants to view this tournament the way he would any year.
Federer’s take? Essentially: Good luck with that, pal.
"The hard part is (the) same for everyone: Every point you play, every game you play, the pressure you face, and just answering the questions time and time again," said Federer, who twice fell one match shy of four Grand Slam titles in a row, losing in the French Open final to Rafael Nadal in 2006 and 2007.
"It’s fun, because you’re talking about the highest of accomplishments," Federer continued. "But at the end of the day, you just like to play the matches and not talk about it that much."
Nadal also went on a three-major winning streak — at the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open in 2010 — but fell short of No. 4, losing in last year’s Australian Open quarterfinals while hampered by a left leg muscle injury.
He dismissed the notion that he came close to equaling Laver, noting that he was three matches away, and said his happiness quotient today doesn’t depend on whether or not things went well in Melbourne 16 months ago.
"Life continues," Nadal said, "and you keep working hard to try to be fit and be competitive for the next (match)."
There’s another way in which Nadal and Federer were far from matching Laver — as Djokovic would be, even if he wins his next seven matches. Rocket Rod pulled off his Grand Slams within a calendar year (the Australian left-hander also did it in 1962; Don Budge is the only other man to go 4 for 4).
Laver himself firmly believes there’s a distinction to be made.
"People will say, ‘He’s going for a Grand Slam.’ And I say, ‘No, he’s not doing that.’ That wasn’t the way this whole thing was set up," Laver explained last year. "It starts in January and ends in September — starts with the Australian Open and ends with the U.S. Open."
None of the top three men is in action in Paris on Day 1. The schedule includes seven-time major champion Venus Williams in her first Grand Slam match since revealing she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease; past French Open champions Ana Ivanovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova; reigning U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur; and past U.S. Open title winners Andy Roddick and Juan Martin del Potro.
Djokovic and No. 3 Federer will be on court Monday, while No. 2 Nadal is slated to begin his attempt for a record-breaking seventh French Open title on Tuesday.
"He is always favorite for this tournament. He even was last year," said Djokovic, who beat Nadal in seven tournament finals in 2011 but lost both clay-court finals they contested against each other this season. "Always No. 1 favorite, because he’s just what he is on clay courts, you know. He’s (the) most successful tennis player ever to play on this surface."
Federer agreed, saying it’s "crazy to even talk about" anyone other than Nadal as the man to beat. Nadal, who turns 26 during the tournament, is 45-1 for his career at the French Open. The only man to beat him, two-time runner-up Robin Soderling, is not in the field this year.
"I played him so many times here," Federer said of the Spaniard. "I know how incredible he can be here."
He is 0-5 against Nadal at Roland Garros, including in the finals of 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2011, when Federer failed to follow up on his masterful semifinal performance that ended Djokovic’s 43-match winning streak.
Federer’s only French Open title was in 2009, when Nadal’s lone loss came in the fourth round. That allowed Federer to complete a career Grand Slam, something Nadal did the following year. Djokovic can be the eighth man to achieve the feat.
To do that, though, Djokovic will need to make it past the French Open semifinals for the first time.
And guess who he was drawn to meet at that stage? Yes, Federer again.
"I had the best year and a half of my career. I believe that I’m at the peak of my career at this moment," Djokovic said. "I definitely want to use this confidence that I have and try to make a good result here in Roland Garros."