Few athletes or teams have dominated an individual competition quite like Rafael Nadal dominates the French Open. He's won eight of the last nine tournaments there, only failing to win the 2009 tournament (won by Roger Federer).
So why in the wide world of sports would I pick Novak Djokovic to beat Nadal at Roland Garros?
For one thing, in my opinion, the only player capable of beating Nadal at the French Open is Djokovic, and at some point, Nadal's dominance in the tournament will come to an end. That's a pretty broad brush stroke, however, when painting the portrait of Djokovic smiling triumphantly in France.
More specifically, Djokovic's recent form against Nadal speaks favorably for him besting the Spaniard this year. He's now won four in a row against Nadal, including a win on clay at the Italian Open, his second win over Nadal on the surface in his last three tries.
While Nadal has generally dominated on clay against Djokovic—he's 13-4 all-time on the surface—the two have split their last eight meetings on clay dating back to 2011. Nadal simply no longer has a pronounced advantage on the surface.
He also hasn't had a great clay season, with just one win on the surface (at the Madrid Open). As Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times writes, that's a historically bad clay season for Nadal:
Nadal won last week in Madrid, but he has still had one of the worst clay-court seasons of his career, including quarterfinal losses at Monte Carlo and Barcelona, tournaments he has dominated. The last time Nadal lost three matches on clay before the French Open was in 2003, when he was 16.
With Djokovic winning in Rome, Nadal in Madrid, and third-ranked Stanislas Wawrinka victorious in Monte Carlo, it is the first time that the three clay Masters events have been won by three men since 2004, the last year before Nadal began to dominate the surface.
Before losing in Barcelona to Almagro, Nadal hadn't dropped a single set at the tournament since 2008. The loss to Ferrer was the first time Nadal was bested on clay by his fellow Spaniard since 2004. These weren't lightning-in-a-bottle wins either, the kind where an opponent has the match of his life to upset a great champion. The questionable losses and surprising three-setters involved top-30 players. Nadal simply looked mortal. He failed to consolidate breaks, had trouble putting away matches, played loose on break opportunities and was hitting more errant shots than usual. There were still the flashes of brilliance, of course, but there were flashes of mediocrity thrown in too.
Of course, Nadal supporters will point to the fact that the Spaniard has knocked Djokovic out of the last two French Opens, beating him in the 2013 semifinals and in the 2012 final. Or they'll point out, you know, his one loss in the tournament since 2005.
And Nadal isn't worried, as he told Rothenberg after losing to Djokovic in Rome:
"My feelings for the French are better now than one week ago," said Nadal. "That's a positive thing for me. During the clay-court season, every week was a little bit better for me. I hope to feel ready for it."
You couldn't blame for Nadal being confident heading into the tournament he has absolutely dominated for the past decade. But it's also hard to ignore that Nadal is heading into this tournament in as poor a form as we've ever seen.
On his best day, Nadal is unbeatable at the French Open. On any other day, however, a player like Djokovic can knock him off his Roland Garros perch. Given the recent form of Nadal, expect the latter.