“For the first time in many years (Rafael) Nadal will not be the favourite going into Roland Garros. That role is now firmly occupied by Novak Djokovic. Nadal is less vulnerable in Paris, given the best of five-set format which allows him more time to problem solve but there are now guys in the locker room who see him as an opportunity rather than an immovable obstacle,” said two-time French Open champion Jim Courier.
“I don’t think Rafa himself expects to win the tournament this year. For Rafa, (clay) it’s his best surface still but he’s lost the fear factor in the locker-room. Think they (rival players) can tell that he’s nervous,” stated Todd Woodbridge, former Australian tennis player.
This is what some former players believe before the start of the 2nd slam of the year, French Open, which is known to be the hunting ground of Rafael Nadal for so many years.
The Spaniard has dominated the clay court like no other player in the history of tennis. The southpaw has pocketed nine French Open titles in last ten years, a record, which would remain a challenge for upcoming players to break in years to come.
However, after dictating terms for a decade, the 28-year-old’s grip on clay seems to be losing. After a string of losses in the run-up to the upcoming Grand Slam, Rafa is looking quite vulnerable to retain his title at Roland Garros. Surprisingly, the 14-time Grand Slam champion hasn’t won a single Masters 1000 tournament on clay this year. In fact, this is the first time he lost all three ATP masters -- Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid -- in the same year. At Madrid, two-time defending champion, lost to Andy Murray for the first time in the final on clay.
These are worrying signs for Rafa, especially before he starts his quest for a 10th French Open title.
Huge slump in form also dropped the Spaniard out of the top five in the ATP rankings for the first time in 10 years. He currently holds seventh position in the rankings. It indicates that Nadal could the face world number one Novak Djokovic as early as the quarter-finals at Roland Garros.
Nothing seems to be going according to the plan for Nadal. Not even switching back to his old racquet helped him change his fortunes. He decided to change his racquets a month ago, just before the start of the clay court season.
Even after trying his best, the former world number one has been unable to revive his top form back on his favourite surface.
The ‘King of Clay’ suffered multiple injuries in the recent past, which forced him to stay away from the court for quite some time. Injuries have certainly taken a huge toll on his form. An appendectomy (last season) and then a wrist injury seem to have shattered his confidence. His swagger and self-belief are missing from his game as he is looking vulnerable on the court. The 28-year-old’s fitness has gone for toss, which is the major reason behind his deteriorating form.
On one end, where, Rafa has been struggling with injuries and form, Serbian Novak Djokovic has been in outstanding form since the start of the year, having lost just two matches so far this season. And that’s another reason the hopes of defending champion hang in the balance, ahead of the French Open. Over the years, this has been the only Slam eluding Djokovic. Regardless of that the Serb will head into the French Open as a hot favourite.
The top ranked player has won ten of the last 16 Masters 1000 tournaments since last Wimbledon, speaking volumes about the kind of form he has been in. With Djokovic in supreme form, Nadal will have to give his best shot to defend his favourite Slam. However, Nadal's dip in form has served as a fresh moment of optimism for his rivals, especially Djokovic. However, you still can’t write-off Nadal, as he is a different player when it comes to Paris. On top of it, the five-set format could play in the hands of Spaniard, who uses top spin and long rallies as a major weapon to dominate on the red dirt.
Now only time will tell whether Djoker dethrones the king to win his maiden French Open or even against all the odds Rafa retains his authority in Paris.