All eyes turn to Parisand the brick red clay of Roland Garros this weekend, as the year’s second Grand Slam gets underway. For the last four years the Philippe Chatrier Court has been the private domain of Rafael Nadal; an unconquerable bastion epitomising the young tyro’s complete dominance on the surface.
At first glance there appears little reason to suggest that 2009 will be any different to 2008, or 2007. Nadal now enters the tournament for the first time ranked as world No. 1, and on the back of tournament wins in Monte Carlo and Rome. His confidence is high and compared to some previous years, there are few fitness clouds hanging over him.
Of course, the recent defeat by Roger Federer in Madrid cannot be overlooked, but the significance of that match is likely to be underplayed publicly by both men, if not in private.
For the more hysterical observers Federer’s victory represented an indication that the great champion can indeed implement a winning game plan against Nadal; and that 2009 is his year to add the French Open to his glittering resume.
In reality, the win showed what we really already knew: that Federer is more than capable of giving the clay maestro a match on the red stuff, and that he can still win tournaments.
That Federer beat Nadal should not really come as any great surprise. The Swiss is the second best clay-court player on the tour, and has only lost to Nadal at Roland Garros in the last four years. If it was not for Nadal, Federer would likely have four French Open titles and the book on who is the greatest of all time would be emphatically closed.
For Nadal, the defeat was the culmination of a gruelling schedule in which he was trying to win all of the clay Masters titles in one season. It is testimony to his conditioning that he came so close. He will undoubtedly be disappointed at losing another mammoth unbeaten streak, but is unlikely to see the loss as a major setback.
There will be many who predict a fourth consecutive final contested between the two in just over a fortnight’s time; but there are more variables to consider.
The emergence of Novak Djokovic as a legitimate contender on clay is the first. It may have been Federer that got the win last Sunday, but Djokovic should be credited with the assist. He has stretched Nadal on every occasion that they have met this European season, and looks set to be a challenger in Paris.
There are still some doubts over his stamina in the ‘slams, as he has an unenviable reputation for abdononments in the best of five-set events; but he has shown good reason this year why observers believe that he may pose the biggest threat to Nadal’s supremacy.
Andy Murray has made progress on the clay this spring, but is still some way from being considered a potential champion at Roland Garros. It will be a disappointment for the Brit if he does not surpass his previous tournament best of the third round achieved last year.
His rise up the rankings, a final appearance at Flushing Meadow and a raft of titles in recent months suggest that he is improving, but his lack of clay pedigree mean that defending his new world ranking of No. 3 will be very difficult.
He has shown that on his day he can beat anyone in the world, but will always be vulnerable to an early round exit against an aggressive or specialised opponent.
While the men’s game theoretically provides a competitive draw; there is no doubt that a winner from outside the top four would be a surprise. Del Potro and Verdasco have put together some fine performances so far this year and should be present in the latter stages, while Andy Roddick will not be holding out much hope that Paris sees him add to his solitary Grand Slam title.
Of the local hopes, Gilles Simon, Jo-Wilifried Tsonga and Gael Monfils are all poised to make a run and will be seeded favourably, though neither is particularly at home on the clay. Within the top 16, the power of Fernando Gonzalez’ forehand and the guile of David Ferrer are potential dangers for any opponents.
Enjoying a climb up the rankings and the benefits of the higher seedings that comes with it is the tour’s genuine maverick, Marat Safin.
The mercurial Russian delivered his best ever Wimbledon last summer, and seems to have rekindled his love for the game. He will always be someone who is best avoided by anyone with designs on the title, if not a legitimate contender himself.
Like last year when an invite was offered to three-time champion Gustavo Kuerten, the organisers have extended a wild-card to another former champion, 2004 winner Gaston Gaudio. It is unlikely that Gaudio will make a huge impact at the tournament, but there will not be many seeds who would relish that match-up in the opening round.
The same could be said for anyone who is paired with Carlos Moya in Friday’s draw. Moya is languishing down in the high 60s in the rankings, but has the pedigree, if not the consistency, to be considered a potential banana-skin. Just the sort of player who could destroy a higher ranked player’s ambition very early on.
Another former Champion likely to be giving seeds sleepless nights is Juan-Carlos Ferrero. Currently ranked 100, he had his first tournament win since 2003 in March, and knows how to win in Paris.
Marcos Baghdatis is another player who’s current ranking belies the danger they could pose. After an injury ridden 2008, the Cypriot is steadily finding form. He made the 4th round in Melbourne, and could pose a threat to seeds early on.
Other players worth a mention are Nikolay Davydenko, Nicolas Almagro and Stanislas Wawrinka; all of whom can spring surprises and boost their Grand Slam credentials. Ultimately though, Nadal will arrive in Paris as a hot favourite to become the first man to win five consecutive titles.
The key sub-plot will be whether Federer can continue his exceptional run of 19 consecutive Grand Slam semi-finals. The US Open victory showed that his ability to play sublime tennis is still very much alive, as is his appetite for winning.
The Swiss would love to show that reports of his terminal decline are greatly exaggerated by finally lifting the Coupe des Mousquetaires on 7 June; but it would seem that this tournament could be the one where those players who for so long have gazed across the void at the two distant figures occupying one and two in the rankings manage to close the gap.