When Rafael Nadal lifted the French Open trophy back in the year 2005, it looked like the first of many. But it didn't look like the first of 6, 7...10 or 11, did it?
The Spaniard's stranglehold over the sport's only clay-court major has filled the pages of several eulogies and history books, but it still isn't easy to wrap your head around that. 11 Roland Garros titles just sounds unbelievable, no matter how many times you hear it.
Can Nadal force us to suspend our disbelief even further by making it 12 French Open trophies? He is the player to beat at the Roland Garros once again this year, just as he's been every year for the last decade and a half. However, a few times during his reign of dominance he's only been the 'favourite' instead of the 'overwhelming favourite', and 2019 seems like one of those instances.
Nadal has fallen in the semi-finals of three clay-court tournaments this year, which is highly unusual for him. He looked ragged and short of ideas in his losses to Fabio Fognini in Monte Carlo and Stefanos Tsitsipas in Madrid, while he got blown off the court by Dominic Thiem in Barcelona.
The World No 2 seems to have regained his form just in the nick of time by winning the Rome Masters, but the memory of that trio of semifinal losses would still be fresh in the mind of every challenger who has entered the Paris draw. The 'King of Clay' is not as kingly right now as he usually is, and that's bound to give some hope to the rest of the field.
Not that Novak Djokovic needs to rely merely on hope to challenge Nadal. He's usually played second fiddle to the Spaniard on clay, but he has been a very strong second fiddle. Djokovic is the only active player to have ever defeated Nadal at the French Open, and also the only player to have defeated him more than four times on clay across all tournaments.
Djokovic is not exactly short on confidence right now either. He's won three Slams in a row, with the last one seeing him hammer Nadal into oblivion. And he's also been playing some of the finest clay-court tennis of his career in the last few weeks.
Djokovic won the Madrid Masters with an imposing display of near-perfect tennis. He then reached the final in Rome too, before succumbing to a combination of fatigue and Nadal's clay-court best. The Serb seems to have shaken off his post-Australian Open blues, and looks primed to launch a full tilt bid for a second 'Nole Slam' in four years.
However, Djokovic's draw hasn't done him too many favours. Aside from the possible early-round speed bumps against the likes of Hubert Hurkacz, Jaume Munar and Borna Coric, he would also likely have to deal with the one man that nobody ever wants in his half: Dominic Thiem.
Thiem has, on clay at least, essentially taken up the role that Djokovic himself used to essay back when Federer and Nadal were the two dominant forces in tennis: that of the unwanted but deadly third wheel. The biggest talking point before the release of this year's draw was where Thiem would land; now confirmed to be Djokovic's projected semi-final foe, the Austrian has started giving sleepless nights to 'Nolefam' already.
Thiem has reached the semi-finals or better at the French Open in each of the last three years, and many believe he's getting closer and closer. He has been denied by either Nadal or Djokovic every time he has threatened to make his long-awaited Slam breakthrough, and he would likely have to go through both of them if he wants to grab the throne this year.
That job didn't end too well the last time he attempted it: after defeating Djokovic in the 2017 quarter-final, he went on to get lose in straight-sets to Nadal in the semis.
What could make Thiem's job even harder this time is that he is slated to face his nemesis Fernando Verdasco in the fourth round. Thiem and Verdasco have played each other in four matches, and the Austrian has lost each time — with the latest loss coming just last week at the Rome Masters. If Thiem wants to remain fresh for an epic take-down of Djokovic and Nadal in back-to-back matches, he'd probably have to hope that Verdasco loses early.
Is Juan Martin del Potro, Thiem's projected quarter-final opponent, another player that the Austrian would want to lose early? Clay hasn't been kind to Del Potro's body in recent years, but the man looked in good shape during his quarter-final match against Djokovic at Rome. The Argentine was returning from yet another injury layoff and still had a match point before ultimately going down in three sets — a sign of progress overall. In particular, the way his backhand held up for three whole sets must be a huge source of comfort for his camp.
It would be tempting to call Del Potro the biggest wildcard in the draw, but that label has already been taken — by a player who has won 20 Grand Slams. Roger Federer is back at the French Open for the first time since 2015, and looks determined to play his part in making this year's tournament more fun than it has been in a while.
Federer is unlikely to pose a real challenge for the title, but he could spoil the party of the players in his path. And the most notable of those players is 21-year-old Greek sensation Stefanos Tsitsipas, who seems to be improving with each passing month.
Federer and Tsitsipas had crossed swords in the Australian Open fourth round, where the youngster produced a performance for the ages to stun Federer and the world. The two are projected to play each other in the quarter-final here, and the spectators in Paris should expect fireworks if that meeting does come to pass.
Tsitsipas on his part seems to be the only serious contender from the Next Gen, having notched up a win over Nadal and reached a final and a semifinal this clay swing. The other high-profile members of his group —Alexander Zverev, Karen Khachanov and Borna Coric — have all been struggling to put together two good matches in a row this year, while the younger Felix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov aren't exactly born to shine on clay.
Zverev doesn't even have a kind draw, as he might run into Fabio Fognini in the fourth round. And you can bet that Fognini will do everything in his power to drive Zverev (or anyone else he faces, really) insane with his electric shot-making. Djokovic will have to be on high alert if he meets this year's Monte Carlo champion in the quarters.
The local brigade meanwhile is led by Gael Monfils and Lucas Pouille, even though neither of them has had any confidence-inspiring results in the run-up to Roland Garros. The likes of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Richard Gasquet, Jeremy Chardy, Gilles Simon and Adrien Mannarino will also try and keep the French flag flying for old times' sake, but their progress into the business end of the tournament seems unlikely.
The home crowd would probably give honorary citizenship to the French-speaking Stan Wawrinka and David Goffin in a heartbeat, but these two have their own problems to deal with right now. Wawrinka's comeback from injury has been going on for more than a year now and he still doesn't look anything like the player he was when he won the title here in 2015. As for Goffin, considering his draw and the fact that he hasn't won much of note in 2019, the Belgian won't have it easy either.
To be fair, nothing about the French Open is easy. It is a grueling test of endurance at the best of times, and a torture chamber at the worst of times. Many players over the years have been brought to their knees by the harsh demands of the tournament, giving up all hope of ever succeeding in the Colosseum-like arena that is Court Philippe Chatrier — an arena replete with gladiators fighting to the death.
But none of this applies to you if your name happens to be Rafael Nadal. While the rest of the players have to worry about their form and the draw and the cruel conditions, all that Nadal has to do is play his natural game and wait for the challengers to fall by the wayside one by one.
As mentioned above, there have been a few instances in the past when Nadal hasn't been the 'overwhelming' favourite heading into Roland Garros — in 2011, 2014, 2015 and 2016, to be precise. But in two out of those four years, he ended up winning the trophy anyway.
The enormity of the task before the rest of the field remains dizzyingly high, because the man to beat is darned hard to beat even when he's below his best. Nadal may be more vulnerable than usual this year, but is anyone ready to go the whole hog and knock him off his perch?
The world is looking at you, Novak and Dominic.
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Updated Date: May 25, 2019 13:21:25 IST