The 2014 French Open begins Sunday and, while the elite players shouldn't have too hard a time getting through the first part of their draws, it's still worth delving into which superstars are in the best form ahead of Roland Garros.
For the men's side, it would often be difficult to dismiss eight-time champion Rafael Nadal as the top favorite. However, this has been a season of trying circumstances for the King of Clay, who just lost in the Rome Masters final to Novak Djokovic.
With both Roger Federer and Andy Murray not playing up to their standards in 2014 and combining for one singles title, Stan Wawrinka has managed to occupy more of the spotlight. Wawrinka won the Australian Open and should be in contention at the French Open.
Here is a look at the men who figure to be best positioned to capture the second Grand Slam title of the season in Paris.
3. Stan Wawrinka
Wawrinka has been playing better than Federer and Murray all season, and he smashed Nadal in the Australian Open final in four sets. He hasn’t competed all too often since his major breakthrough, but there’s still reason to believe Wawrinka can contend at Roland Garros.
A triumph at the Monte Carlo Masters over Federer in the final gives Wawrinka recent success on clay from which to draw.
It’s hard to question Wawrinka’s fortitude and mental game these days, as he’s proven up to the task of beating anyone in the world when he’s on. Thanks to a big serve, pounding groundstrokes, improvement in the more finessed parts of his game and fitness, Wawrinka is a force to be reckoned with.
An upset loss in Rome to ageless wonder Tommy Haas is disappointing, but Wawrinka shouldn't be dismissed based on that defeat alone. A letdown is excusable so close to another golden opportunity for Wawrinka to stake his claim as a truly elite player.
Scheduling has been rather light as it is for Wawrinka, and he's stayed rather even-keeled throughout the up-and-down results. That drew the praise of his coach, Magnus Norman, per The New York Times' Christopher Clarey:
You have to play a very smart schedule, and that’s what I think Stan is doing really well this year, even if he has been a little bit up and down with the results. He hasn’t panicked when he’s losing. He isn’t overplaying when he’s confident and doing well. You’ve got to be really careful to not overplay because you can get injured and sick.
Last year’s career-best trip to the French Open quarterfinals ended on a bitter note, as Nadal pummeled the Swiss star and conceded only seven total games in three sets. There should be some sort of vengeance factor there, along with confidence stemming from Nadal’s own shortcomings on clay this season.
Thanks to his all-court game and demonstrated ability to get it done in a Grand Slam earlier this year, there’s no reason Wawrinka should lack conviction in his bid for a second straight major title.
2. Novak Djokovic
The victory over Nadal in Rome still isn’t enough for Djokovic to get the No. 1 nod in the men’s power rankings for the French Open.
John Buccigross of ESPN noted how excellent Djokovic has been against his chief rival as of late following the Italian Open finale:
The New York Times' Ben Rothenberg noted how aggressive Djokovic was in taking the second set from Nadal in Rome—something that could be apply in the impending major tournament:
Djokovic was so close to defeating Nadal in the semifinals at Roland Garros last year. That five-set epic saw Nadal take the match 9-7 in the decisive final frame, leaving Djokovic painfully short of the career Grand Slam.
And that is precisely what makes it difficult to endorse Djokovic, despite his recent prowess and his close call to the three-time reigning champion in 2013. Djokovic has plenty of time to secure his maiden title in Paris, but in all likelihood, he will have to get past Nadal to get it done.
The pressure is on for Djokovic to complete his collection of major trophies. Until he proves himself in this particular venue against Nadal, though, he can’t be considered the man to beat.
1. Rafael Nadal
Even as the disrespected third seed last year, the final result didn’t change for Nadal. Rafa cruised through most of the tournament before his clash with Djokovic. From there, it was a mere formality to walk all over his overmatched Spanish compatriot David Ferrer in the final.
The only final Nadal didn't win came in 2009, when he was ousted in the fourth round by Robin Soderling. It marked his only loss in 60 matches at Roland Garros, so, odds are Nadal will walk away with the trophy again.
However, it is worth highlighting the trials and tribulations Nadal has undergone on clay in 2014. Aside from the loss to Djokovic in Rome, he's fallen to the likes of Ferrer in Monte Carlo and Nicolas Almagro in Barcelona. Both of those dropped matches came in the quarterfinals, calling into question Nadal's perpetually precarious health situation.
Even with the loss to Djokovic, Nadal feels optimistic heading to Roland Garros, per Sports Illustrated's Courtney Nguyen:
Knee issues have plagued Nadal and perhaps kept him from even more dominance. The fact that he's been able to still win Roland Garros every year—save 2009—since his explosion onto the scene is all the more impressive in that context.
It looked as though Nadal was vulnerable the last time around, yet he still walked away with the top prize.
A changing of the guard atop men's tennis could occur if Djokovic finds a way to topple Nadal, or if the Spaniard suffers a shocking upset as he has in some tournaments this season. Failing to win the French Open would hint at Nadal's impending decline and could harm his ability to compete at a high level moving forward.
As close as it is to decide between Nadal and Djokovic, the resume Nadal sports is too strong to be overwhelmed by Djokovic's brilliance, the apexes of which have not occurred at Roland Garros. That could very well change once the tournament climaxes, but Nadal is still the king in Paris.