PARIS -- There was a moment in Tuesday's first-round match against Jarkko Nieminen when Novak Djokovic might have been visited by some nerves. The 33-year-old Finn was serving at 5-3 -- two points from collecting the second set -- when Djokovic began to play with a startling sense of urgency.
He won the last four games and made off with the set and ultimately the match, winning 6-2, 7-5, 6-2. No one on the planet is playing better tennis than Djokovic.
He is riding a searing 22-match winning streak and is 35-2 for the season. He has won each of the four ATP Masters 1000 events in which he's played. Keen observers say the world No. 1 is playing at an even higher level than in 2011, when he won three of the four majors. Some of them wonder privately if the 28-year-old Serb could become the first player to win a single-season Grand Slam since Rod Laver did it 46 years ago.
But there is an asterisk, of course: an elephant in the Roland Garros room named Rafael Nadal.
He has already won the French Open a record nine times, but he is looking to push that total into double digits -- something no man has ever done. That would leave him only one behind the staggering 11 Australian Opens of Margaret Court, who has more Grand Slam titles at one event than any other player.
A week from Wednesday, Nadal and Djokovic could meet in the quarterfinals, a match with all kinds of legacy implications. While Djokovic is playing far better coming in, there are questions about his ability to close the deal against Nadal. After four matches of feasting on his French comfort food, it is not a stretch to imagine that Rafa might find his vintage form. At the same time, Djokovic could conceivably revert to the player who has lost to Nadal here in two of the past three finals at Roland Garros, and six times altogether?
Against Nieminen, Djokovic moved flawlessly and his strokes were butter-smooth. He was broken only once and hit 40 winners.
"It was a test, it was a challenge for me to come back to the court again after first match after Rome finals," Djokovic said afterward. "And obviously it's been a year since I played on Philippe Chatrier, and nice memories.
"Of course, I was aware of the quality and experience of my opponent today, who has shown, and especially in the second set, why he's been around the tour and a successful, consistent player for so many years. He can play. He can swing through the ball and being very aggressive. And he was the better player for most of the second set."
And yet, Djokovic prevailed with relative ease. He understands what's at stake here. This is his 11th French Open and, appropriately, he would join the great Roger Federer and Andre Agassi in winning Paris in his 11th try. That would give him the career Grand Slam, something only seven other men have done. That is a very starry and short list.
"It's without a doubt his most successful tournament," Djokovic said of Nadal. "He loves playing on clay, especially here in Paris. Best-of-five as well, something that is playing in his favor, because there are not many players who can compete physically with him. To accept the fact that you're going to have to play a lot of long rallies, you're going to have to win the points, he's not going to give you, he's one of the best defenders ever to play the game."
Nadal, who handles pressure as well as any player who ever lived, recognizes the unusual situation: For the first time in a decade, he's not the favorite.
"Well, obviously, the dynamics are the dynamics, no?" Nadal said Tuesday. "When I had some up and downs during the season, is normal that can happen here. I am try to avoid that, and I am here to try to play good tennis and to give me a chance to play well and to compete for everything.
"I'm going to try as I try every year. My mentality and my goal is the same always."
At the end of his news conference, Nadal was asked if there was any room for improvement heading toward the second week. His long-winded answer was 918 words long. It began with an aggressive forehand and consistency and wound up with a passionate defense of the Spanish Tennis Federation.
Yes, Rafael Nadal is fully engaged here. Back to you, Mr. Djokovic.