Even at his worst, Rafael Nadal heads to Roland Garros as the favorite to win a record-extending ninth French Open tennis championship.
The world No. 1, the best clay-court player of his generation with 44 titles, has had three defeats in Europe this season, winning one tournament. That’s his worst warm-up since he was 17 and starting on the men’s tour. In the past nine years, the Spaniard has always won at least two European titles on the slowest surface before the Paris event, which starts in two days.
None of that may help opponents against Nadal in the best-of-five set format at the French Open, compared with best of three in ATP World Tour matches.
“That’s still the ultimate test, despite whatever he did last week or last month when he was looking slightly vulnerable on clay,” ESPN broadcaster and former world No. 3 Pam Shriver said in an interview. ‘Three-out-of-five is a different assignment, and only a few players have figured him out.’’
So far, Robin Soderling is the only man to have beaten the 27-year-old on the clay of Paris. The tall Swede, who shocked an injured Nadal in the fourth round in 2009 with blistering ground strokes, has been sidelined with mononucleosis for the past three years.
After quarterfinal exits in Monte Carlo and Barcelona to players he normally brushes aside, Nadal won the title in Madrid when his opponent Kei Nishikori of Japan retired injured. Last week, Nadal blew a one-set lead in the Rome final against Novak Djokovic of Serbia.
“I don’t see any reason to worry,” two-time French Open champion Manolo Santana said in an interview at the Madrid Masters earlier this month. “Why did he lose? Maybe he was lacking that killer instinct,” the 76-year-old Spaniard said, when asked about Nadal’s defeats to countrymen David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro.
“There’s no reason why he shouldn’t lose some matches, he’s human like the rest of us after all,” Santana said. “But he’s a great champion and will recover from that.”
Nadal, who turns 28 during the second week of Roland Garros, is the 5-4 favorite at U.K. bookmaker William Hill Plc to retain his title. That means a winning $4 bet would return $5 plus the stake.
Djokovic follows at 6-4, with Australian Open winner Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland at 8-1. Switzerland’s Roger Federer is 14-1. Federer, the 2009 champion, enters Paris two weeks after becoming the father of twins for the second time.
In the women’s draw, top seed Serena Williams of the U.S. is the 5-4 favorite to retain her title, followed by former champions Maria Sharapova of Russia at 5-1 and China’s Li Na at 6-1. Williams plays France’s Alize Lim in the opening round, and may face her sister Venus Williams in the third round, followed by a possible quarterfinal clash against Sharapova.
Even after his fourth straight defeat to the second-ranked Djokovic -- who could knock him off the top spot if he beats him in the French Open final -- Nadal said he was “proud” of the way he played in Rome. After struggling in the earlier rounds, he beat Wimbledon champion Andy Murray of Britain in the quarterfinals and 12th-ranked Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria in the semifinals.
“Rome, Monte Carlo, Madrid, Barcelona is past now,” Nadal told reporters today. “We are here in Roland Garros, and the only thing that matters now is have a good practice. I will practice today, will practice tomorrow, good practice on Sunday, and try to be ready for the competition.”
Nadal, a 13-time Grand Slam champion was today drawn against Robby Ginepri of the U.S. in the opening round and could face Ferrer in the quarterfinals. In the other half of the men’s draw, Switzerland’s Roger Federer could meet Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals, while Djokovic -- who plays Portugal’s Joao Sousa in his first round -- could take on Canada’s Milos Raonic in the quarterfinals. Federer takes on Slovakia’s Lukas Lacko in the first round.
Djokovic, beaten by Nadal at Roland Garros five times including the 2012 final and the semifinals last year, called his victory in Rome “a confidence booster.” Earlier in the season Djokovic added three-time Wimbledon champion Boris Becker to his coaching team in an attempt to win in Paris, the one Grand Slam event that’s eluded him.
While Nadal is the favorite, his next five years probably won’t be as successful as the past five, according to Shriver.
Nadal told Time magazine this week that he is “still having pain a lot of days,” and that he has doubts about himself.
Last season, he bounced back from a seven-month injury-related absence with one of his best seasons. He won 10 tournaments, including the French and U.S. Opens, and ended the year as the world’s top male player.
“The pattern recently on the men’s side is if one of the guys has a super year, an amazing year -- the way Djokovic did three years ago when he went into the French Open undefeated, maybe a couple of the Federer years and Nadal last year -- it’s really hard to come back again with a great season, given the quality in the men’s game,” said Shriver, a 51-year-old American who won 106 doubles titles.