Djokovic shakes early cobwebs

PARIS -- When shooting for four Slams in a row, everything has to fall into place. Rafael Nadal will tell you that.

A year ago, Nadal rolled into Melbourne with a good chance of becoming the first player since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four majors at once. But Nadal fell ill in the Middle East, prior to departing for Australia, and that set the wheels in motion.

His body weakened and Nadal couldn't train properly. More susceptible to injury, the Spaniard tweaked his hamstring in the Australian Open quarterfinals and lost to David Ferrer.

No, on that occasion, Nadal's knees weren't to blame.

Novak Djokovic, the man now seeking four in a row, hasn't had the ideal preparation, either. The Grand Slam he really wanted this year was the French Open, and to that end, Djokovic seemed to conserve energy between Melbourne and the start of the European clay-court swing.

Djokovic was ready to knock Nadal off his perch in Monte Carlo -- before the sad passing of the Serb's grandfather. He was in no shape to offer up a challenge mentally, and Nadal crushed him in the finale.

There was a change in plans when Djokovic bailed from the tournament his family runs in Belgrade and then the distraction when he heavily criticized the ATP after losing on the much-maligned blue courts in Madrid. Rome didn't alter his fortunes, either, as an error-prone Djokovic fell to Nadal for a second consecutive time.

Perhaps Djokovic needed to change things up. But was it really necessary for him to switch his clothing sponsor from Italy's Sergio Tacchini to Japan's Uniqlo last week? Maybe wait until after Wimbledon?

All the moves of a high-profile athlete, yes, are under the microscope.

Hours before Djokovic stepped on Philippe Chatrier court Monday, Alberta Brianti threatened to upset women's No. 1 Victoria Azarenka. Now it was Brianti's fellow Italian, Potito Starace, who would try and do the same to the ATP's top player, Djokovic, in a first-round match at Roland Garros.

A clay-court specialist who failed to hold his nerve against Andy Murray at the French Open in 2009, Starace stuck with Djokovic for a set. When they went to a tiebreaker, and Starace secured a quick mini-break, thoughts turned to Brianti. She snared the first set against Azarenka, 7-6 (6).

Unlike Azarenka, though, Djokovic rallied in the tiebreaker and cruised the rest of the way for a 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-1 victory.

"At the start, I was still trying to find the rhythm and movement on the court," Djokovic said. "And he obviously played a very good first set."

Djokovic took a while to unlock the 30-year-old Starace, but first matches at Slams for favorites and contenders can be tricky -- especially when there's this much history on the line. Roger Federer, for example, was pushed hard for a set by Tobias Kamke. Starace served above his usual standard for a set, picked the right time to throw in drop shots and took advantage of a sluggish Djokovic.

Djokovic, however, didn't face a break point in the match. If he is to topple Nadal in the French Open final, his serve must be working.

Djokovic exhibited his (usual) good sportsmanship, drawing a mark in the clay to refute an out call on Starace's serve that was actually good. Most noteworthy, though, Djokovic showcased his multilingual skills when he spoke French in his on-court postmatch interview.

"I'm trying to take it slowly," he said. "I'm running out of words, so I have to update myself in French, the French words. Who knows? Maybe next two weeks I'll learn something more."

Even if he had done so at the Paris Masters, this tournament is on display to a much wider audience. He's sure to win over some French fans, which could come in handy if the Djokovic-Nadal clash materializes. Despite being a dominant No. 1, Djokovic hasn't yet matched Nadal and Federer in popularity, something which appears to frustrate him.

If Djokovic brushed up on his French in the past few weeks, that part of his prep was just fine.