tennis

Djokovic leads list to take Nadal's French Open crown

Rafael Nadal has won a record nine titles at the French Open
Rafael Nadal has won a record nine titles at the French Open Reuters/Sergio Perez

Novak Djokovic is the top seed at the French Open and widely considered as the man to beat at the tournament. Rafael Nadal is the defending champion but seeded sixth - his lowest ranking at the tournament since he claimed the first of his nine titles in 2005.

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Way back in May 1897, the American author Mark Twain corrected newspaper articles about his poor health with the rejoinder: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

In his heart of hearts, 118 years later, Rafael Nadal is probably contemplating the same riposte.

The Spaniard enters his 11th French Open with explicit doubts about his clay court potency.

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While Twain’s demise was confused with a cousin’s illness, there are the results to emphasise that all is not hale and hearty in the body athletic of Senor Nadal. 

He hasn’t displayed the imperious form associated with his muscular assault on the second grand slam event of the season. 

Once ago he’d win clay court title after clay court title before carving up a victim in the Roland Garros final on the first Sunday in June.

Roger Federer has been Nadal’s fall guy on four occasions – Novak Djokovic twice, David Ferrer, Robin Soderling and Mariano Puerta the others.

This year, though, he comes to the French capital to defend his title seeded sixth. It is his lowest ranking in a decade.

Moreover he hasn’t won a clay court tournament in Europe. That too hasn’t happened since he collected his first Roland Garros title against Puerta in 2005.

Nadal was beaten in the semi-finals of the Monte Carlo Masters by Djokovic. He lost in the last 16 to the Italian Fabio Fognini in Barcelona and was runner-up to Andy Murray at the Madrid Masters. Stan Wawrinka dismissed him in straight sets in the last eight at the Rome Masters.

Not at all usual. But the 28-year-old said the low expectations may be to his advantage.

"I don't need to lie to create better expectation or to let you or the people know that I am in one way or I am in the other way,” he said. “I have to think that I am ready. My last couple of weeks have been much more positive than what the results said.”

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He added: "I’m going to try to put my game in a position that's going to give me the chance. If I am able to do it, I have enough experience here."

After his victory over Djokovic in 2014, Nadal was hit by a series of injuries as well as a bout of appendicitis.

"It's important for me to have a full season playing tennis but always when you are back in a place where you had unbelievable success, it always is special. But the past is past. We are in 2015. What happened in the past doesn't matter.”

Djokovic leads the list of men deemed most likely to supplant Nadal.

If he were to lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires, Djokovic will become the eighth man to have won the four grand slams at the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. Nadal and Federer are already in the pantheon along with the likes of Andre Agassi, Rod Laver and Fred Perry.

Djokovic is also the man in form. In January he claimed a fifth Australian Open – his eighth grand slam. He has also been supreme in this season’s Masters tournaments which are considered to be most prestigious on the circuit after the grand slams.

So far this year the 28-year-old Serb has won the Masters in Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo and Rome. He has won 35 of his 37 matches this year and boasts a 22-match winning streak.

"It is obviously very encouraging knowing that I have won all of the big events and that I’m playing some of my best tennis of my life,” he said. “Coming into Roland Garros with that amount of confidence helps."

But after 12 years on the circuit, he said he is well aware that domination can count for nothing.

In 2011, Federer ended a 43 match winning sequence in the French Open semi-final.

"I have had this particular situation before,” Djokovic recalled. “And especially in the last two years where I was coming into Roland Garros and people speculating whether this was my year or not.

"But I can't predict anything. I can't guarantee I can go all the way. I just need to try to do what I do best and that is taking one day at a time, having the proper positive mindset that doesn't allow me to think too much in advance.”

The Serb knows he is the man to beat. Federer says that after nine titles Nadal can’t be discounted. Of the troika Federer is regarded as the least likely to lift the title. It’s a strange scenario for a second seed. Perhaps it’s those four losses in the showdown to Nadal. However in 2009, the only occasion that he reached a Roland Garros final and he wasn’t playing Nadal – he won.

So perhaps there is hope for the 33-year-old Swiss who lost in this year’s Rome Masters final in straight sets to Djokovic.

Third seed Murray has been anointed a contender since his destruction of Nadal in the Madrid Masters final. It was gladiatorial. It was clinical. It was powerful. It was Nadalesque.

The 28-year-old Scot has twice been a semi-finalist in Paris and has the technical weapons to be an accomplished clay court player. In his previous appearances in the last four, he appeared to lack belief. That won’t be an issue this year, having overcome Nadal for the first time on clay in Madrid. 

That success came a week after he picked up his first clay court title in Munich at the expense of the local hero Philipp Kohlschreiber.

The last local hero to win Roland Garros was Yannick Noah. That was in 1983. Only Henri Leconte has since reached the final back in 1988. Since Noah's victory there has been much weeping and wailing about the dearth of male French grand slam champions.

Reports of that demise aren’t at all exaggerated.

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