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The Prince and the Pretender

Rafael Nadal, five-time French Open champion and World No. 1, arrives in Paris one last time before turning 25, only this time sporting a question mark over his head instead of his customary crown.

Having lost a grand total of one match at Roland Garros since he made his debut there in 2005, he must be accorded the respect due him and anointed favourite to nip a sixth title in seven years. But these days, the young Spaniard must wake up feeling as if he were Great Britain’s Prince Charles.

Since early 2004, only two men, Roger Federer and Nadal, have held the top ranking: an astonishing state of affairs in these unstable times. Now, sandwiched between Federer – tennis’ second-longest reigning monarch of all time – and Djokovic – a player on a 39-match winning streak who could at any moment snatch away the number one ranking – Nadal no doubt feels the pressure to remain relevant, and to reinforce his narrative as the greatest player of all time. Even as Federer fades from our consciousness and passes into the role of elder statesman, Nadal’s main rival for the title this year, World No. 2 Novak Djokovic, has sounded his bugle with wins on clay against Nadal in consecutive Masters Series finals.

In the grand scheme of things this may be a portent for the future; in the short run it must cause Nadal considerable alarm that he has failed so far to spot chinks in the Serbian’s improved game.

In Rome, Nadal tried everything, including a couple of hilarious moonballs, but lost in straight sets in conditions similar to Paris. There is cause for concern but all is not lost.

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Nadal is hardly one to whine but he has every reason to feel aggrieved. Ranked No. 2 for the longest period in history, he has had to apprentice under one of  the great masters to earn his position. Since then he has overcome everything from messed-up knees to his parents’ divorce. Just last year, he won three of the four Majors – increasing his tally to nine – and rounded off the career Golden Slam.

Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic will mount a serious challenge. AFP

Make no mistake about it: Nadal has done more than enough to rank highly among the most dominant players in history, even if his standing as the pre-eminent tennis player of his generation is already under threat.

The problem, of course, is that Nadal’s game is extraordinarily physical and takes a heavy toll on his body. But his mental toughness and his ability to grind out victories from behind in the big matches are legendary. On the other hand, just as he finally caught up with Federer, others are catching up with him.

As has proven the case so far this season, we are no longer watching Djokovic in his previous incarnation; frail in body and spirit, inclined upon occasion to retire when close to losing. As a two-time Grand Slam winner Djokovic is experienced; yet he has never won seven best-of-five set matches on the trot on clay. On a surface that has worn out better players, his once-suspect fitness levels will be tested to the limit once again.

Winning all those matches since late last year has given him enormous confidence but like all good things, the streak must end eventually, just as Nadal finally lost in 2009 to the relatively unheralded Robin Soderling – who remains good enough to take out a few big names – in Paris.

As an aside, it will be interesting to see if Djokovic’s status as the man to beat causes him to implode. His opponents will certainly be fired up; glory and a place in history are at stake. How his ego copes with this impending fracture, and whether he can bounce back immediately, like Federer did after his sensational loss to Marat Safin in the 2005 Australian Open semifinals, could decide if Djokovic supplants Nadal and ends the year as the No. 1 player.

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If Djokovic does go on to dethrone Nadal, we may be witness to another change of the guard. Nadal should derive consolation from knowing it is oddly fitting:  just as Nadal announced his arrival on the scene by defeating Andy Roddick in the 2005 Davis Cup final, Djokovic proclaimed his resurgence by carrying Serbia to victory in the same competition in December 2010.

But it’s too early for Nadal to be evaluating his legacy. While Nadal has lost four consecutive tournament finals to Djokovic, he has seemed incredibly assured against Federer. On clay very few top players pose a threat to his muscling dominance even if he has stumbled sporadically against lesser players on other surfaces. And his massive experience in Grand Slam finals is nothing to scoff at.

Even now Nadal has much going for him; he merely needs to peak at the right time. Another title here and he will suddenly feel a little more secure, a little less antiquated.