World No. 1 and clay-court aficionado Rafael Nadal has entered the French Open tournament six times and has hoisted the trophy five of those times. However, the defending champion has a difficult draw in 2011, and his work is cut out for him if he is going to win his sixth French Open crown.
Nadal could conceivably have to go through the three men he would probably least want to see on the other side of the net in the next two weeks, not to mention the fact that he has one of the toughest first-round matchups in the men’s draw in American John Isner. Isner is a big server whose game doesn’t suit the clay as well as other surfaces, but can still give anyone a run for his money, especially if his opponent is having a bad service day.
Nadal’s first real worry, however, should come at the hands of No. 28 seed Nikolay Davydenko in a third-round encounter. We all know that while talent is major catalyst for success in sports, matchups can be just as important.
Davydenko is the only player still making any kind of real noise in tennis that holds a career advantage over Nadal in head to head matches (6-4). A grand slam event is a different story, especially on clay, but Nadal will get all he can handle from the veteran Russian in an early-round upset alert.
On the other end of Nadal’s quarter of the draw is No. 5 seed Robin Soderling, who is the only player to defeat Nadal at Roland Garros. That came back in the fourth round in 2009, marking one of the biggest upsets in tennis history.
While Nadal avenged that match with a convincing victory in the 2010 final over Soderling, Nadal knows that if he doesn’t bring his "A" game that Soderling can potentially hit him off the court. Soderling is the two-time defending runner up at the French Open and had really established himself as the second-best clay court player in the last few years. That is, of course, before the emergence of Novak Djokovic this season.
If Nadal is able to get through the likes of Isner, Davydenko and Soderling, as well as some other strong players (possibly Fernando Verdasco and Andy Murray), what awaits him in the final could be the toughest challenge of all. The aforementioned Djokovic is a whopping 39-0 this year, including three wins over Nadal, with two of them coming in the finals of clay-court events.
Djokovic has never been able to solve Nadal in his career over the course of five sets, which is perhaps the only thing Rafa can cling to if they indeed meet in the finals this year. But Novak’s game is at an all-time high level, as his previously vulnerable serve is now one of the best in men’s tennis.
Oh and if Djokovic is somehow knocked out before the finals, Nadal would likely have to take out the man who has the most grand slam singles championships in men’s history, Roger Federer.