Rafael Nadal's monopoly over the French Open will face a swift test this year at Roland Garros.
The star has won the past four French Opens while seizing eight of the past nine, but he could lose his stranglehold if his slump persists into his signature tournament.
When the world's premier tennis stars take to Paris on May 25, Nadal will have to defend his crown against a stout field of competition. As we know by now, the usual suspects tend to dominate men's tennis, so none of these top contender picks will provide any surprises.
Expect the usual rivals to once again push for the crown at Roland Garros.
Yep, I'm really going out on a limb listing Nadal as a top contender to win the French Open.
The 27-year-old is an unstoppable force of nature on Roland Garros' clay courts, winning his favorite event eight times. Siding against him feels like picking the Washington Generals to upset the Harlem Globetrotters. Sure, it happened once, but that's a distant memory.
Yet his dynasty is slipping, having tallied three losses on clay this year alone.
In Nadal's last tournament, he lost to Novak Djokovic in three sets at the Rome Masters. As noted by Beyond the Baseline, that extends the Spaniard's losing streak in their personal feud.
Nadal had to labor to make it through the previous round, defeating Gilles Simon in a match that spanned three hours and 19 minutes. While he wouldn't let the ultimate letdown discourage him, he highlighted the rough path through the tournament to Sports Illustrated's Courtney Nguyen.
My legs didn’t answer after a tough week, not [good enough] to arrive and to produce the power and to hit the ball longer so I let him play in positive positions.
A lot of times when he had the first ball good, for me it was very difficult to arrive to the ball and to change the dynamic of the point. In general I can do a little bit better. But in general I am very proud about this week.
Although he's not at his best, he deserves the benefit of the doubt entering the French Open.
Last year at Roland Garros, the No. 1-seeded Djokovic had the poor fortune of running into Nadal in the semifinals, where the two legends turned in another five-set classic that Nadal survived.
A knee injury caused Djokovic's rival to receive an unflattering No. 3 seed, costing the Serbian star a chance to participate in all four Grand Slam finals in 2013. After besting his nemesis in Rome, Djokovic could once again assume the No. 1 ranking, this time likely setting up a bout in the final with Nadal.
While Nadal is the King of Clay, Djokovic is far from outclassed in those conditions. According to ESPN Stats & Info, he has held his own in their finals showdowns on clay courts.
From 2006-2009, Nadal won nine straight meetings on clay in ATP World Cup, Grand Slam and Davis Cup draws. But those results are much more even over the past three years.
Djokovic boasts the most realistic chance at ending his nemesis' French Open winning streak. This is his golden opportunity to finally pick up the elusive major title to complete his career Grand Slam.
Of course, it's not a universal mandate that Nadal and Djokovic must meet in the championship clash.
One of them could fall to the likes of Roger Federer, Andy Murray or Australian Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka. The sturdy David Ferrer, however, deserves some recognition as a contender always lurking around the corner.
While Ferrer has never won a Grand Slam, he's reached at least the quarterfinals in each of the past nine major events. Last year, he met Nadal in the French Open final after the eventual champion did the heavy lifting by eliminating Djokovic.
He'll need another fortuitous draw and preferably more help from someone else to knock off at least one of the two major titans. But if chaos unfolds, he's a safe choice to be there when push comes to shove.
Ferrer probably won't win, but he'll hang around for a while.
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