Allegedly limited by the playing surface, Switzerland's Roger Federer continued to evolve his game at the Madrid Open in May. Much has been made of Nadal's dominance over Federer on clay, to the degree that the BBC conducted a study on the science behind that relationship.
Federer continued his tough play on the clay through the Italian Open in Rome and into the French Open, reaching the semifinals in Rome and losing only four total sets in his first four matches in Paris.
Despite the very unique playing surface at Madrid's Manzanares Park, Federer prevailed over the Czech Republic's Tomas Berdych 3-6, 7-5, 7-5 to capture the singles title.
Coincidentally, Nadal and Djokovic each fell to his own countryman, Fernando Verdasco in the third round and Janko Tipsarevic in the quarterfinals, respectively.
The perception that Federer struggles on clay originates in large part from the direct comparison with Nadal, as Federer's recent victory on clay in Madrid clearly demonstrates.
May's title was Federer's third at the Madrid Open.
The next week in Rome at the Italian Open, Federer's luck ran out in the semifinal as he fell to Novak Djokovic 6-2, 7-6, 7-4.
To reach the semifinal, Federer eliminated the scrappy hometown favorite, Andreas Seppi, as well as the still-dangerous Juan Carlos Ferrero, both allegedly clay-court stars.
Federer has serious clay-court credentials in his own right, but his rivalry with Nadal, one of the top clay-court performers of all time, clearly alters that perspective.
Djokovic and Nadal have nearly monopolized the final at Foro Italico in recent years and 2012 proved no different.
One would think that the clay surface at Roland Garros would clearly favor Nadal, but that same logic would deem Federer's success and Nadal's early exit at Madrid an impossibility.
What ultimately could determine Federer's fate in Paris will be not how he fares in a potential clash with his rival Nadal, or the reigning world number one, Djokovic, but if that contest even occurs.
With Djokovic facing this week's hometown favorite, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France, in the quarterfinals, his own storybook ending of becoming the third player to ever win a consecutive Grand Slam title could give way to Tsonga's own hometown upset legend.
It's been nearly three decades since Yannick Noah (of Joakim Noah fame) emerged victorious for a home-nation win at Roland Garros in 1983.
Meanwhile, Nadal squares off against another of his own countrymen, Nicolas Almagro, in the quarters.
Federer drew Argentina's Juan Martin del Potro in his quarterfinal matchup, a re-match of the 2009 US Open, in which del Potro defeated Federer for his first Grand Slam title.
Perhaps more daunting, should Federer defeat del Potro, he just may have to defeat Djokovic and Nadal to win the French Open.
The clay courts at the Roland Garros will diminish the advantage Federer enjoys with his thunderous serve, yet the man Sports Illustrated has named the greatest ever to play the game will employ perhaps the world's most developed tennis skill set against del Potro and any more potential opponents.
An example of that skill set? How about the tweener (between-the-legs-volley) Federer used to dispatch Djokovic to reach that US Open final against del Potro?
Regardless of the surface, Roger Federer's sheer skill continues to merit favorite status in any setting.
With two victories to his name out of 14 tries against Nadal on clay, much of the tennis world will draw their own conclusion before such a hypothetical match even began.
Sometimes history tells the whole story, but as Fed-Ex displayed in Madrid, sometimes you have to play the game and find out.
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