French Open: Who can stop the Nadal machine?
On the tennis circuit, clay courts are referred to as “the dirt”. Charming. Hardly compares with the lyricism of the purists who trill about the green swards of Wimbledon. But the dirt reaches its peak on Sunday at Roland Garros in Paris, where a certain Spaniard has dominated since 2005.
The poetry for the third Grand Slam tournament of the season can then, perchance, wait until early July as the circus heads for the clay pens of the French Open.
As ever, sub-plots and statistics will spruce up the proceedings during 15 days of matches on the western fringes of the French capital.
One question, with apologies to fans of Robert Aldrich movies, pierces the prelude: will Rafael Nadal be celebrating a dirty dozen on 10 June?
The 32-year-old Spaniard has won the title on 11 of his 14 visits to Paris.
Little wonder that he considers the French Open the most important tournament of his career. Usually, he claims two or three of the clay court tournaments in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid and Rome before reaching Paris.
In 2019, there has been a relative slump. He only managed to notch up the Italian Open. He did it after dispatching top seed Novak Djokovic in three sets.
“Winning a title is important," said Nadal after collecting his 81st senior championship. "But it is important to feel healthy and competitive.
"You can win and you can lose but as long as you have your physique, that's crucial."
Djokovic, though world number one, acknowledges that Nadal is the man to beat in Paris.
“Rafa can change directions so easily,” said Djokovic. “He's got a great flick of the wrist. He's so talented on any surface, but clay especially. He covers the court so well.
“The shots that can win you the rally or a point against 99 percent of players, with him, it doesn't work. It takes an extra shot more. You just have to position yourself well, whether you step into the court or you back up.”
If Nadal is triumphant in Paris, it will be his 18th Grand Slam trophy. That will put him only two behind Roger Federer who returns to the French Open after a three year absence.
The Swiss insists he sat out the event in order to keep himself fit for his assaults on Wimbledon.
Nearing 38, it would be remarkable if he were to brandish the Coupe des Mousquetaires on the final Sunday of the tournament.
Federer, who will be seeded third, says he is playing without pressure. But will that yield the ultimate reward and a 21st Grand Slam crown in the face of the intensity emanating from a Nadal or a Djokovic?
The Serb will come to Paris as the holder of the last three Grand Slams. If he manages to lift the trophy, he will be the first man since … Novak Djokovic in 2016 to boast all four Slams.
If Roger is in town for pleasure, then, perhaps, it’s the pressure principle for Djokovic who will clock up Grand Slam number 16 with overall victory.
When Briton’s Andy Murray was in his pomp, he, along with Federer, Djokovic and Nadal formed a “Big Four”. They bestrode the circuit. They chomped chunks out of each other and slaughtered the rest.
With Murray cut down by injury, the troika continues to jealously maintain the hegemony. The young pretenders have not arrived.
Dominic Thiem, Nadal’s victim in the 2018 French Open final, is, at 25, hardly a tyro. Alex Zverev, who entered the top 10 in July 2017 shortly after turning 20, has not lifted a major and arrives in Paris on the back of poor shows on the clay courts this season.
Stefanos Tsitsipas, the Greek 20-year-old, has also breached the top 10. He knocked out Nadal in the semi-final in Madrid only to be overpowered in the final by Djokovic.
Nadal took his revenge on Tsitsipas in the semi-final in Rome. It finished 6-3, 6-4.
At last Djokovic took a set off Nadal before he was dispatched in the final in Italy. That will give Djokovic hope. It will, alas for the French Open contenders, also keep Nadal on his toes.
Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morningSubscribe