My favourite Major of the tennis calendar starts on Sunday – Roland Garros. Okay that is not entirely accurate. Because in about a month I shall be saying the same thing of Wimbledon before echoing those sentiments towards the US Open and then announcing my momentary unconditional love for the Australian Open. The twist at this year’s French Open is that for the first time in nearly a decade the title seems to be up for grabs.
World number one and “King of Clay” Rafael Nadal has started to show chinks in his previously indestructible armour. At 27 it is absurd to say age has caught up with the Spaniard but his physically demanding game might have taken its toll and we have seen Nadal struggle with injuries more in recent times than in the past. However being the champion he is, he inevitably rises to these kinds of occasions. He has been written off before but continues to defy the odds.
For the first time since 2004 the left-hander has lost three matches during a clay court season. The other players on the ATP Tour would have taken note of this. Moreover they would have observed an alarmingly high number of three set matches Nadal has been forced into during the two most recent Masters events in Rome and Madrid, although he did ultimately reach both finals and won in the Spanish capital. That last sentence is evidence enough that the clay court master is hardly damaged goods.
Perhaps it will be Novak Djokovic that presents the greatest challenge to the man who has won eight of the last nine Roland Garros titles. The Serb trails 22-19 in his career head-to-head against the Spaniard however since his wonder year in 2011 the picture is considerably more favourable to Djokovic, who leads 12-6 in the last three-and-a-half years. The picture on clay still favours Nadal who leads 13-4 overall but since 2011 is tied at 4-4 with the Serb. The key statistic is perhaps this one: In five meetings at Roland Garros over the years, Nadal has triumphed every single time.
Paris is still Rafa’s backyard in that regard and he will go into the year’s second Major as the favourite to clinch a ninth title in the French capital but this season has thus far shown that the Spaniard is certainly human and that this could be the year that his firm grip on La Coupe des Mousquetaires is loosened and the man who is closing in on regaining the number one berth on the world rankings, Djokovic, appears best-placed to usurp the Spaniard. Not that Nadal will give it up without a fight, of course.