I spent parts of two summers working at the French Open during the height of Rafael Nadal’s first Roland Garros reign in 2007 and 2008. Both years, before even the first match was played, anyone who’d been at the previous French Open knew who was going to walk away with the men’s title. The running joke was how long it would take for people to start talking themselves into Roger Federer as a potential threat to Nadal’s crown. At the time, Federer was the best tennis player in the world and at the peak of his run to set a new all-time record for Grand Slam titles. But for anyone who watched the two play their early-round matches on Paris‘ fabled red clay, the discussion was a nonstarter. Rafa beat Roger in four sets in the 2007 final and dominated him at the same stage in straight sets the following year (they also contested the 2006 final, which Nadal took in four). Nadal was the king of clay, the Rajah of Roland Garros. Those monikers still remain appropriate today.
Simply put, there is no justifiable reason for anyone to pick a men’s tennis player other than the 26-year-old Nadal (he’ll turn 27 during the Grand Slam) to win the 2013 French Open, which begins this Sunday in Paris. Any alternative narrative evaporated when Nadal dispatched longtime foe Federer 6-1, 6-3 in a tidy 69 minutes to win the Rome Masters 1000 title last Sunday. It’s possible that Rafa has slipped to the backs of sports fans’ minds since he hasn’t participated in — let alone won — a Grand Slam event since falling in the second round at Wimbledon a year ago, but there’s little question that he’ll once again be the primary concern of every player on tour come Sunday.
Since returning from injury in February, Nadal holds the best record in men’s tennis at an imposing 36-2. One of those losses came in the finals of his first tournament in nearly six months and the other came last month in the Monte Carlo finals against Novak Djokovic, who has the second-best year-to-date record at 28-4. Nadal has won six tournaments in 2013, Djokovic has won three. No one else on tour has won more than two.
Nadal is right where he normally is at this time of year. He’s arguably the greatest clay court player in tennis history and that’s the surface that dominates the spring schedule (though Rafa has also won his lone hard court event of 2013). Whatever whispers were spoken about his health following the missing of some Grand Slam tournaments have been drowned out by his dominant play over the last three-and-a-half months.
Then there’s his history at Roland Garros. Nadal has won seven of the last eight French Open championships (including the last three), his streak interrupted only by a fourth-round loss to Robin Soderling in 2009 while battling knee ailments. That means the Spaniard is 52-1 lifetime at Roland Garros. For comparison’s sake, Federer and Pete Sampras — both of whom hold seven Wimbledon titles — each lost seven times at the All-England Club. No one in the history of men’s tennis has been as dominant at any single venue — let alone a Grand Slam event — as Nadal has been at Roland Garros.
But if we’re going to insist upon entertaining the idea that Nadal could be toppled, let’s take a look at the main contenders (and it should be pointed out that two potential foes, Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro, have both pulled out). Even in his advancing age of 31, Federer is still one of the game’s best players. He surprised many by winning Wimbledon for a seventh time last year, but has scaled back his schedule this season and only played in six tournaments. Federer’s lone finals appearance came last weekend when he fell to Nadal in two sets. If he wasn’t able to beat Rafa at Roland Garros in 2006 or 2007, when he won the other three Grand Slams of the season, it’s unlikely he’ll pull it off this year.
The only other player on tour to win 30 matches this season is Nadal’s countryman David Ferrer, whom Rafa just passed in the rankings. Though Ferrer has won a pair of tournaments this season, Nadal didn’t enter either one and is 19-4 lifetime against Ferrer, including 3-0 this year.
That leaves Djokovic, who defeated Nadal in their lone meeting this season. Nadal is 19-15 lifetime against the world No. 1 and won all three of their clay court matches in 2012 after Djokovic had defeated him seven consecutive times between March 2011 and January 2012. Djokovic has never been particularly successful at Roland Garros. It’s the only Grand Slam he’s never won and he’s only made the finals there once (last year, when Nadal dispatched him in four sets). Still, the 26-year-old Serb is the only opponent who’s been able to dominate Rafa for an extended period of time and has momentum from his January win at the Australian Open. If anyone has a chance of toppling Nadal, it’s the Serbian Sensation.
But the odds of Djokovic pulling off the upset — and don’t be fooled by the fact that Novak is No. 1 and Rafa No. 4 in the world tennis rankings — are slim. Nadal is incredible on clay and otherworldly at Roland Garros. He’s also relatively fresh after his six-month layoff. The new Nadal is the old, indefatigable Nadal once again. There may come a time when his reign draws to a close, but the king of clay doesn’t seem poised to relinquish his crown anytime soon.