In an exciting first week at the French Open, defending champion Rafael Nadal won three matches without losing a set. What lies ahead, and who are the players the "King of Clay" will need to overcome in order to win a record seventh title?
Six-times champion Rafa, who turns 26 during the tournament, has lost only once in an incredible eight years at Roland Garros. Tendonitis in both knees contributed to his fourth-round loss to Robin Soderling in 2009, leaving him unable to defend his Wimbledon title several weeks later.
2012 has seen Rafa collect titles at Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome. His only loss of the clay court season occurred on the blue clay of Madrid to Fernando Verdasco. That surface was heavily criticized by both Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
With a tournament record of 48 wins and just one loss, the Mallorcan is the overwhelming favourite to win this year's title. So what lies ahead for him in the next seven days?
Monday, in the round of the last 16, sees Rafa face world No. 15 Juan Monaco.
Before injuring himself at Monte Carlo, the Argentinian was in form, having just won the U.S. clay court title at Houston. After a few weeks recovering from the ankle injury he sustained in Monaco, Monaco won two matches at the Rome Masters before losing in three tough sets to Djokovic.
Good as he is, I think it unlikely that Monaco will seriously trouble Nadal.
If he comes thru in the quarterfinals on Wednesday, Rafa will then face the winner of Nico Almagro and Janko Tipsarevic's match. Neither would seriously challenge the defending champion.
The semifinals on Friday will likely see Rafa play either Andy Murray or David Ferrer. Against Nadal, neither usually offers much resistance over five sets on a clay court.
Sunday’s final will almost certainly be against current world No. 1 and winner of the last three Grand Slams, Novak Djokovic.
Leading into this year's Monte-Carlo Masters, Nole had beaten Rafa an incredible seven times in a row. This included an epic five hour, 53 minute 2012 Australian Open final win, along with victories in the finals of last year's US Open and Wimbledon. During his incredible 43-match unbeaten run at the beginning of 2011, Novak enjoyed clay court victories over Nadal in the finals of both Madrid and Rome.
Heading into Monte Carlo 2012, Djokovic was considered by many as favourite to end Rafa's seven-year winning streak at the tournament. A death in the family earlier in the week, however, effectively ended Novak's interest.
Though he put on a brave face and made his way to the final to play Nadal, he was unable there to summon the mental and physical strength necessary to overcome someone who many consider to be the greatest clay court player of all time. He lost in straight sets.
The Rome Masters final gave Djokovic yet another opportunity to resume his dominance over Nadal. Despite a high quality first set, it was the Spaniard who emerged a straight sets winner. This installs him as the clear favourite to win at Roland Garros.
It’s looking increasingly likely that the week ahead will be another good one for the "King of Clay."
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