The hurt in Rafael Nadal's face after the 2012 Australian Open final was clear for everyone to see—and understandably so. He applauded Novak Djokovic, congratulated the world No. 1 in his speech and graciously held the runners-up trophy high, but the Spaniard was unable to hide his disappointment in losing the gruelling six-hour long contest.
But if history has taught us anything about Nadal, it is that he will not let a tough defeat linger for too long in his memory.
First and foremost, the 10-time Grand Slam winner is a fighter and he will be looking to avenge the loss against Djokovic as soon as possible. What better place to do it than at the French Open?
Nadal's record on clay speaks for itself. He holds a 32-4 record in clay court finals and of the 10 grand slams titles he has won, six of them have been on the red clay of Roland Garros. He has proven to be almost undefeatable on the surface since winning his first French Open title in 2005. A 67-1 record at the tournament and a dominant 2011 victory in Paris suggest that Nadal will once again be the man holding the Coupe Des Mousquetaires in June.
It would seem, though, that Nadal has the upper hand against his closest rivals on the clay. Other than the head-to-head records on the surface—which Nadal leads convincingly—it is the nature of his wins that make him favourite to add a seventh French Open to his collection.
Nadal's natural game is perfectly suited to the most physically demanding slam on the calendar. He seems to enjoy playing extended rallies, and as the Australian Open showed, he will play with as much intensity, speed and power in the last point of a match as he does in the first. It is this thought that defeats so many opponents before a ball is even struck.
Nadal is reported to have a VO2 max of 85—the same level as cyclist, Lance Armstrong. This is further proof, if it was ever needed, that Nadal is fitter than anyone else on the tour. With physicality being so important at the French Open, Nadal has a huge advantage when matches go into the fourth and fifth sets in Paris.
Djokovic, too, is astoundingly physically fit, although there are moments when he looks sapped of energy. Unless he can match Nadal physically, it will be tough for him to impose his attacking game over a best of five set match against the Mallorcan on clay.
Nadal's biggest weapon on clay is undoubtedly his forehand, and it is that shot which no one has found an answer to yet. The spin that he is able to create off the forehand side means that players are constantly pushed too far behind the baseline to make any impact with their own shots. Unless his opponents can find a way to nullify Nadal's forehand, they will continue to be put in defensive positions.
There is also a belief among many of the players that Nadal is the greatest ever clay court player.
"He's for sure the best clay-court player ever," said Murray after losing their French Open semifinal encounter in 2011. That sentiment is echoed right across the tennis world—something that makes defeating Nadal even harder.
Rafael Nadal may face his toughest title defence yet at Roland Garros this year, but the Australian Open showed that he is in good form and early indications suggest that he will, again, be the man to beat in the second Grand Slam of the year.