Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal: Who Are the Favourites at the French Open 2011?

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Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal: Who Are the Favourites at the French Open 2011?
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

There are still two days until the draw for the French Open 2011 comes out, and by then, we will be much wiser. Some prefer to wait and see how the draw falls out before naming the favourites, but the fact of the matter is that while a player can have a tough draw, he should prevail if he's a worthy favourite. 

By now, we are used to one, clear, overwhelming favourite in the men's draw at Roland Garros. The man goes by many names; the Spanish Bull, the Freak of Nature, the Warrior, Rafael Nadal or simply Rafa. For the past five years, he's been the overwhelming favourite. 

The question has not so much been: will he lose, but rather, will he lose a set?

This year is different. This year, we have witnessed a tectonic shift in men's tennis in general and in men's clay-court tennis in particular.

The name of that shift is Novak Djokovic. For the second time since 2005, Rafa has suffered more than one loss during the clay court season, and for the first time in this period, those losses have come to the same man, Novak Djokovic.

Not only that, the losses came in straights and came after two final loses on hard court. And Rafa could not blame injury or fatigue in any of those matches. 

This makes for the most open French Open since Rafa emerged as a force on the men's tour. As good as Federer was on clay and as relatively close he came at beating Nadal in the 2005-07 French Open's, Nadal always had the edge. 

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Not so anymore. Nole has been beaten Rafa by being better at Rafa’s own game. He seems to have found a winning formula against which Nadal has no answers.  

In this respect, we might even say that this French Open is not so open after all. It is Nole's to lose, and he's the overwhelming favourite for it.

This is taking the tectonic shift too far though.

The reality is that they are co-favourites for the title.  If anyone not named Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic wins the title, it will be a massive surprise. 

Nadal has lost three sets on clay this season to players not named Djokovic. One to an outstanding Andy Murray, one to Roger Federer in Madrid where Federer traditionally gives Rafa trouble and one to journeyman Paulo Lorenzi in Rome, while Rafa was not feeling well.

Novak has lost only lost three sets all together on clay, one to David Ferrer, one to Thomas Beluzzi and one to a once again outstanding Murray.

What can we make of this? My conclusion is that Nadal has a slightly easier time against the rest of the field than Novak has, which makes Rafa slightly more likely to reach the final. If anything, his history on the surface shows that.

His history at Roland Garros will help him too. He may have lost some confidence losing to Novak four straight times and two times on clay, but that confidence should re-emerge from knowing he's won it five times already. He knows exactly what it takes to get to that final Sunday and close it out. Novak doesn't yet. 

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He also knows that he's beaten Novak the three times they've met at Roland Garros from 2006-2008 and that Novak is yet to take a set from him. Finally, he's proven that he knows how to peak for a Slam and he can take comfort in having the best record of all active players when a match reaches the fifth set.

Many have argued that the best-of-five sets format will alter the dynamics in favor of Nadal. I wouldn't count on it. If anything, their matches this year shows that Djokovic is more than capable of competing with Nadal in long, grinding matches. Is there any reason to believe he can't make use of his new found fitness in the best-of-five sets format?

He couldn't in the US Open, where he faltered in the fourth, but Novak 2.0 is arguably a different player. However, we haven't seen the Novak 2.0 being pushed in a best-of-five sets match, and we have seen him tired in a long three-setter like against Murray. This should provide some hope to Nadal fans.

Nadal, on the other hand, has shown a remarkable resilience in the fourth and fifth set over his entire career. He's proven that the longer the match goes, the more likely he's to win it. He's found a new wind time and time again, and we can expect he'll be able to do it again should it be needed. As good as Djokovic looks, we do not know that about him just yet.

The upside for Djokovic is this: It might not matter who's best in the fourth or the fifth set as Nadal is yet to show he can take a set of Djokovic 2.0 on clay.

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The bookies still give a very slight edge to Nadal. I will say that he has a slightly higher likelihood of getting to the final, but that Djokovic is a small favourite to win it if they both get there. Nadal just hasn't shown that he can come up with a game plan that can bring Djokovic down.

 

The rest

As I said, those two are the overwhelming favourites, and it will be a surprise if anyone else wins the title. The following men are all capable of upsetting one of the favourites if they hit a near perfect day and meet Novak and Rafa while they're not at their absolute best. But beating both of them, which they in all likelihood would have to, is a big ask. Even with this in mind, the field is small and elite.

Roger Federer, Andy Murray, David Ferrer, Juan Martin Del Potro, if sufficiently healthy, and Robin Soderling to the extent his foot injury is healed are all capable. Jurgen Melzer got to the semis last year but has been poor since Monte Carlo. Thomas Beluzzi found a way to push Djokovic while the latter was having a bad day and could, by some stretch of imagination, possibly do it again. But over three sets? Not that likely.

My three main dark horses are Delpo, Murray and Federer. Federer is unlikely to beat Djokovic and Nadal, but at his absolute best, he's still capable of beating anyone. The question is whether he can hit that absolute best for a long enough period to get there.

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I was very optimistic about the way Delpo was coming back, and I think he would have been the first among the rest had he not just had another setback with his hip injury. If that doesn't impede him too much, he will be a danger to anyone he faces, including Rafa and Nole.

Murray is my unlikely dark horse, firstly simply based on his performances against both Rafa and Nole on clay this year. He came closer than anybody at defeating Nole during his streak, when he was two points from winning three times in Rome. And it wasn't by luck, but by matching Novak stroke for stroke, rally for rally, return for return and a serve that left the otherwise other-worldly returner Novak puzzled for parts of the match.

Against Nadal in Monte Carlo, he went head and toe with Nadal for two sets before running out of gas or being hampered by injury in the third. Those two matches show that Andy can battle the two current giants in tennis.

As for Ferrer, he has won a meagre two sets against Nadal in their last 10 clay encounters. The main reason for his place on the dark horses list is that he's likely to go deep and that he did manage to push Novak in Madrid. That said, I do not believe he can go past any of them at the French.

The field of favourites is select, the field of dark horses is almost as select. Let's see what the draw brings us, where Del Potro lands and whether Novak's incredible streak will still exist once we reach that final Sunday.     

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