Will someone dethrone Rafael Nadal, in his kingdom? Better yet, is it feasible to believe that someone can break the Spaniard’s clay court dominance in Paris?
Before daring to answer, let us consider the following: the Enigma called Rafael Nadal has won 11 of the last 14 editions played at Roland Garros; the other three were won by Novak Djokovic (2016), Stan Wawrinka (2015) and Roger Federer (2009). Under these conditions, it is a validreason to believe that in the current state of tennis, there is no greater challenge than winning the elusive “Musketeers Cup”. Ultimately, there is no greater challenge than defeating Nadal in Paris.
When Federer was questioned about whether it was difficult to win on clay, he replied: “I have no problems on clay. I have a problem called Rafa Nadal on clay.” The reason behind this problem? The left-hander leads their head to head clay court rivalry, 13-2.
Out of the exclusive, short list, of players who have defeated Nadal at Roland Garros, Novak Djokovic is the only one who is left that is still active. The other member on the list, Robin Soderling, officially retired from the game in 2015, although his last match was played in 2011.
Djokovic defeated Nadal in 2015 (lost in the final to Wawrinka) and continues to be the only player who has defeated Nadal seven times on clay. However, his record at the French Open against the Spanish is 1-6.
Correspondingly, a player who has been appointed to potentially dethrone Nadal’s reign on clay is Dominic Thiem. In spite of the fact that the Mallorcan destroyed the Austrian in the 2017 semifinals and the 2018 final – Thiem is the only tennis player whose last name is not Nadal, who has excelled on the dirt throughout the last four years. During the most recent edition of the Barcelona Open, Thiem uncrowned the 11-time defending champion with an impressive 6-4 6-4 victory in the semifinals.
“As long as Rafa is playing, he will always be the No. 1 favorite on clay,” said Thiem. “But I feel that, like never before, there are many possibilities for us and many great challenges for him.”
As Djokovic and Thiem pose as serious threats for Nadal who is in search of his 12th Roland Garros title, there is no doubt that there will be a lot of attention around Federer’s return to Roland Garros. This season, Federer returned to clay-court competition for the first time since 2016.
It seems that many have forgotten that Federer won the French Open in 2009 and was only the second player of the Open Era to complete the Career Grand Slam (after Andre Agassi). Many have also forgotten that up until a few years ago, the Swiss was the second best clay court player on the tour. Although he took a four year break from the clay, after playing in Madrid a couple of weeks ago, Federer proved that his game on the dirt is still impeccable. “Everyone knows that I have not played much on clay in recent years, but that does not take away the possibilities. Anything is possible, so let’s see what happens in the following tournaments.”
While the majority of players are ordinary humans, Federer, 37, is going against the concept of time and logic. Displaying an aggressive style of tennis, one would have never guessed that he took any time off from the clay; he defeated Gael Monfils 6-0, 4-6, 7-6  in the second round of Rome. With this victory, he reached the 1,200th victory of his career.
Later, against Thiem, Federer squandered two match points and fell to the Austrian 3-6, 7-6 (11), 6-4. As a result, the loss to Thiem was the 21st match that Federer lost after having match points.
It is probable that without exuding major efforts, Federer can arrive in the semifinals before encountering the true favorites of the draw.
Novak Djokovic is the current No. 1 in the world and the reigning champion of the last three Grand Slam tournaments. He is without a doubt, a favorite to shine again in the City of Lights.
“There are times when you feel good and feel full confidence on the court, especially when the results are positive,” he said recently about his titles at Wimbledon, US Open and the Australian Open. “But there are also bad times where things do not always work in your favor,” explaining his falls in Indian Wells, Miami and Monte Carlo.
After surprisingly falling in the quarterfinals last week against Italian Marco Cecchinato, Djokovic regained his confidence on clay in Madrid. He was able to take advantage of his experience to beat the young Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Djokovic who now contributes the last year as the key to finding the current balance of his career, is currently third on the list of most amount of major titles; standing at15, he is on the hunt to reach Nadal’s 17 and Federer’s 20. “15 months ago I was injured and it took me six months to find my game after surgery. I was No. 22 in the ranking and I thought I would never return to first place,” the Serbian confesses.
He continued, “People often see us as robots, that we are perfect at everything we do, but in the end we are men like any other and we have the same problems as any other person would. We need to be able to understand things in a positive way and find the balance. For me, that is my highest priority: the constant balance”.
At 32 years and close to becoming the second man to complete the career Grand Slam for the second time after Rod Laver, Djokovic should be considered as the main candidate to be in the final on Sunday, June 9th.
Behind the Serbian, Thiem and Federer, there is a list of players that will probably provide a lot of chatter during the tennis days in Paris. The contenders are: Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas, German Alexander Zverev, Argentina’s Juan Martín del Potro and Diego Schwartzman, as well as the Italian Fabio Fognini (recent champion of the Masters 1000 of Monte Carlo).Finally, let’s talk about Rafael Nadal.
First of all, we must give credit to Toni Nadal, Rafa’s uncle and long-time coach, for having created the most flawless player who has ever played on clay. Toni turned Rafa into a lefty, taught him to play with a drive composed of enormous strength and topspin, and made him a tireless warrior on the court. More importantly, Toni made Rafa a full-time worker with high ethical and moral values. Uncle Toni taught his nephew to be a tennis player who plays each ball as if it were the last.
On the other hand, as the work of the successful duo was recognized from the beginning, it was also predicted that the style of play would lead Rafael Nadal to suffer numerous injuries over the years. The prediction came true, especially in recent years. But what nobody ever dared to predict was that Nadal would win Roland Garros 11 times.
Rafa will turn 33 on June 3rd. This is an age that for many, means the start of retirement. Nevertheless we are talking about a player who has overcome adversity on multiple different occasions. He is a tennis player who has dared to explore outside of the services of his Uncle Toni to experience change and to receive the advice of Carlos Moya.
Nadal is a fighter who has held his ground in recent tournaments; even though he lost, he always keeps up despite the defeat. He is a man who took five months to lift his first title of the season but, undoubtedly, will serve with confidence for the big date in Paris.
A new edition of Roland Garros is about to start; and for the first time in many years, there are several favorites to lift the Musketeers Cup. However, before anyone wins the title, they will first have to ask the best clay court player of all time for permission.
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