Rafael Nadal, whether ranked number two or number three in the world, will head into the French Open finals as one of the favorites for the title, if not the favorite for the title.
Looking retrospectively at how the clay court season has evolved so far this season, the results haven't actually being that surprising. Nadal won the Monte Carlo Masters and Barcelona as is expected given his history in those two places, Federer won the traditionally hard-court leaning Madrid Masters and all three are looking comfortable enough in Rome.
Having won the title at Estoril, Juan Martin Del Potro is sure to make a nuisance of himself, while Tomas Berdych's contentment with playing in courts that set the ball up for big hitters like himself is shining through. David Ferrer, industrious as ever, is there or thereabouts and everything more or less seems like it usually does.
Speaking prospectively about a tournament is about as unscientific as one can get in tennis analysis. However, the judgments made here are made on the best available evidence.
Who are the biggest threats to Nadal on clay? Simple: big servers, flat-hitters, confident players and Nakovic (Nadal himself, with a touch of Djokovic left to simmer).
It is no secret that Nadal struggles against big servers; you only need look at Nadal's French Open first round match last year against John Isner.
Nadal's return of serve was so bad on that occasion that the match more or less turned into a teeing session. Serve-winner tennis. The worst brand in my opinion, but there you have it.
Incidentally, that Isner match was the first time Nadal had ever been taken to five sets in Roland Garros and the first time he'd ever been two sets to one down in that tournament.
For the astute and perhaps slightly superstitious fan, that would have been a wake up call. Looking back at it, Isner was only setting a precedent. The worst is yet to come.
Nadal, after the match, admitted that it had been a disaster and promised (odd?) it wouldn't happen again:
I have been making these mistakes over the last few months. I accept this. Once you accept there is a problem, you can face the problem and find solutions. Right now … I don't think this will happen again.
(Sorry if the posted video brings back any repressed memories—I don't know, break your computer or something to divert the emotions.)
That a pathetically poor mover such as the tall, gangly Robin Soderling could out-manoeuvre Nadal on clay like he did on that fateful French Open day in 2009 is not a so much a testament to how unpredictable tennis can be as it is proof of the danger that flat hitters pose to Rafael Nadal.
Of course, Nadal was better than that performance, but the fact remains that he was bellowed out of the court like steam from a train.
Counter-intuitively, the reason for Nadal's proneness to this style of play is buried deep in his own game. Hitting as he does, with top spin, sending the ball higher up into the air than most can, even if they do as mummy says and put their minds to it, has one big disadvantage, despite admittedly several advantages.
The disadvantage is that you give your opponent the one thing you want to take from them: time. Flat hitters, on the other hand, are not so kind. Nadal needs time to set up for his shots. He is a deliberate guy; he has a process and he isn't as versatile as we think.
So, when you take time away from Nadal, there are two outcomes:
1. He loses rhythm (meaning his balls are landing shorter) and, sooner rather than later, he loses belief in his shots, as happened in Madrid last week against Fernando Verdasco.
2. He starts hitting flatter, and you start losing.
The way I see it, curse your luck when you've got to face a guy with a point to prove.
Not just a threat to Nadal, players who feel it's their time to shine, who have got a chip on their shoulder, who want to bust your balls (I'm a bit like that), are threats to everyone.
Last week, Nadal went into his third round match against fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco with a 13-0 winning head-to-head record. He lost the first set, came back and made short work of the second, broke twice in the third and was serving for the match at 5-2 when he netted a very easy forehand smash (confidence to Verdasco?) and from there lost his way and lost the match.
Lapses in concentration are inevitable; making sure you don't lapse against a confident player or that your lapse doesn't give your opponent confidence is paramount.
On clay, the biggest threat to Nadal is himself.
At the Madrid Masters, we saw just how destructive his negativity (in this case, negativity about the court surface) could be.
Nadal is by far the best clay court tennis player we have seen in the last 20 or 25 years. The title at Madrid was a shoo-in for him. We can argue all day about it, but the guy is so good on clay, that it really was.
You just feel that if Nadal had only kept his head down and applied himself, he could have overcome.
I know some will disagree, and I couldn't care less, because it's the truth. Verdasco, who, for all intents and purposes, looked like the best player in the world when he beat Nadal, lost his next match against Tomas Berdych 6-1, 6-2 in an hour and seven minutes. Hello?
Federer, who eventually won the tournament, wouldn't have beaten Nadal on clay—he can't beat Nadal. He's done it once, maybe twice—hell, his wins are so fleeting, I can't even remember. Nadal is the biggest threat to himself.
Djokovic is also a threat. Well, not so much Djokovic, but the idea of Djokovic, the scars that were left from last year. It's unlikely that the Djokovic factor of 2011 still applies as much as it did last year—the fourth set of the Australian Open final earlier this year did a lot to humanize Djokovic, and his level this year has dropped down appreciably (as expected). He's a threat nonetheless, though.
Toni Nadal, Rafael Nadal's uncle and coach, recently told 20minutes.es that he felt his nephew had regained his confidence and Djokovic had slightly regressed:
His [Rafael's] game became more aggressive and it worked [in Monte Carlo]. He has also gained in confidence. [The win] took a load off. Djokovic has always been a great player, but to maintain the level of last year's game would be incredible.