Rafael Nadal is not used to being an underdog at the French Open, but that is what he will be if he does not win at the Mutua Madrid Open.
The Spanish star has dominated his opponents on clay courts throughout his career. At Roland Garros, Nadal has won an amazing seven times in the past eight years. He only has one career loss at that Grand Slam event.
However, he enters this year's championship with more doubt than ever before.
After missing seven months with a knee injury, Nadal has eased himself back to action with mixed results. He does have four tournament titles, but he lost to Horacio Zeballos in a big upset at the ATP VTR Open, and he lost to Novak Djokovic in the finals at the Monte Carlo Masters.
That second loss was more concerning because Rafa had dominated that tournament in past years. The fact that Djokovic was able to defeat him on clay is not a good sign for the French Open.
Still, Nadal can remove most of these doubts by winning this tune-up event.
Of course, that will not be easy. The No. 5 seed has a very difficult draw in Madrid, one that likely features David Ferrer in the quarterfinals and Roger Federer in the semifinals. If he advances to the final round, he could end up facing Andy Murray.
The only good news is that top-seeded Djokovic was upset in his first match by Grigor Dimitrov. The Serbian had been incredible all year, and his early exit makes this tournament wide open.
Nadal needs to use this opportunity to clean up his game while also gaining confidence for the major upcoming tournaments.
Fortunately, he is off to a great start. After receiving a first-round bye, he easily defeated Benoit Paire by a score of 6-3, 6-4. His ability to serve with consistency is a great sign for the next couple of weeks.
In the match, Nadal put 80 percent of his first serves in play and did not have one double fault. He also won 75 percent of his service points and was not broken once by his opponent.
He was even in high spirits after winning and he signed the camera (via @LiveTennis):
If he can maintain this level of dominance with his serve, there are few competitors who will challenge him, especially on clay.
The key will be to keep up this great play. Nadal must remain strong in all aspects of his game throughout this tournament to prove to the world and himself that he is capable of beating elite competition.
Until he does this, it is hard to trust him to win the much tougher French Open.
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