It is no secret that Rafael Nadal has won seven of the past eight French Opens. Nor is it a secret that he is the best clay-court player in the world. With that said, Nadal must win this week's Madrid Open to maintain the considerable momentum he has built up heading into Roland Garros.
After missing seven months due to a knee injury, Nadal returned with a vengeance in February.
Since surprisingly losing to Horacio Zeballos in the first round of his first tournament back, Nadal has gone on a dominant run. He has lost just one match since then—a hard-fought encounter against Novak Djokovic in the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters final—and he has largely been a dominant figure.
Nadal has four titles through six tournaments and has at least managed to reach the finals in each of the events he has competed in. Nadal has already reached the Madrid Open semifinals, and there doesn't appear to be much resistance in his path. He will face qualifier Pablo Andujar in the semis and then the winner of Tomas Berdych and Stanislas Wawrinka.
Roger Federer was already upset by Kei Nishikori, so fans were robbed of a potential Rafa vs. Fed semifinal. Andy Murray couldn't get past Berdych in the quarterfinals, and world No. 1 Djokovic was upended early in the tournament by Grigor Dimitrov.
That means Nadal is the clear favorite—as if he wasn't already.
Nadal may only be the No. 5 player in the world based on the rankings, but tennis fans know that he's much better than that. He outlasted world No. 4 David Ferrer in the quarters in a match that he could have easily lost. Nadal dropped the first set and was in trouble in the second, but he battled back and buried his Spanish countryman, 6-0, in the third.
If Nadal is able to triumph in the Madrid Open, it will mean five titles in seven tries for Nadal this season, and it will give him all the confidence in the world heading into the French Open.
Even though he didn't have to play any of the other top players in Madrid aside from Ferrer, Nadal has to feel good about the fact that his closest competition faltered.
Djokovic, Murray and Federer are supposed to be the guys who can end Nadal's incredible string of dominance at the French Open, but they certainly haven't proven capable of doing that. Nadal is the only one left standing, and his play has largely been excellent aside from tough stretch during his match with Ferrer.
With that said, Nadal's confidence would likely take a hit if he were to lose to Andujar in the semis or one of Berdych or Wawrinka in the finals. He would be in the same boat as his counterparts, so that competitive edge might be gone.
If Nadal wins, though, the likes of Djokovic, Murray and Federer will see the writing on the wall with the French Open looming.
The last thing that Rafa wants with the French Open so close is a setback of any kind, whether it be mental or physical. He needs to make sure that his knee is good to go, but he can't let that stop him from going all-out and winning in Madrid either.
Nadal knows how good he is on clay, but it's always nice for a player to get a win under his belt before a big tournament.
Nadal should be more vulnerable now than ever before at the French Open as he is still working his way back from injury and the stable of top players in tennis continues to grow. Rafa hasn't shown any signs of rust, though, and provided he is able to finish the job in Madrid, he should enter Roland Garros with plenty of swagger.
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