Rafael Nadal: Looking at Potential French Open Matchups on the Road to a Title

Tom LoughreyAnalyst IIIMay 30, 2011

Rafael Nadal: Looking at Potential French Open Matchups on the Road to a Title

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    Rafael Nadal has his legs back under him after winning his last three matches in straight sets at the 2011 French Open after a rough start.

    After Nadal was pushed to five sets by American John Isner in the first round, many people thought his days of dominance on the surface might be behind him. However, Nadal has rebounded by not losing a set since his match with Isner en route to the quarterfinals at Roland Garros.

    Nadal has been more aggressive and less error-prone, especially effective in his last two matches. In the third round, Nadal only surrendered four games to Croatian Antonio Veic. Nadal converted nine of 10 break point opportunities, sending Veic home in only 101 minutes. Nadal only lost seven points in a 6-0 third set.

    In the Round of 16, Ivan Ljubicic was the opposition. Ljubicic was coming off back-to-back straight-set wins over Sam Querrey and Fernando Verdasco—both seeded players. The win was never in question for Nadal, who committed half the errors that Ljubicic did while serving at 68 percent for the match.

    Now, Nadal is the final eight of yet another French Open. His next opponent is the only person to have beaten him at Roland Garros—Robin Soderling.

    Here's a look at the potential opponents for Nadal throughout the rest of his bid for a sixth French Open championship.

Quarterfinals: Robin Soderling

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    Overall record vs. Soderling: 5-2

    Record against Soderling on clay: 3-1

    This may be the most menacing opponent in Nadal's half of the draw.

    Nadal is 38-1 at the French Open. Robin Soderling is the player that blemished an otherwise clean sheet for Nadal. However, it was tendinitis in his knees that could have been Nadal's biggest opponent on that day.

    The two met again in last year's final, with Nadal prevailing in straight sets. Soderling has to be close to perfect when playing Nadal. Nadal is more aggressive than in years past, but Soderling needs to control every point he can. He needs to take advantage of Nadal's serve, hitting every return as deep as he can.

    Soderling has strong enough groundstrokes to hit Nadal off the court in some games, but I don't think he'll be able to play at the level necessary to topple Nadal again.

    Prediction: Nadal wins in four sets

Semifinals: Andy Murray

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    Overall record vs. Murray: 10-4

    Record against Murray on clay: 3-0

    Andy Murray still has some work to do to get into his second career French Open quarterfinals.

    After trailing two-sets-to-love, Murray rallied to win sets three and four to knot the match up. The contest was suspended due to darkness, and the players will take the court again on Tuesday to finish.

    If Murray gets through, he'll face Juan Ignacio Chela as a big favorite. If he and Nadal meet in the semifinals, it'll be the 15th match between the young stars of the ATP.

    Murray has never beaten Nadal on clay, but he took his first set against the Spaniard in Monte Carlo this season. A match between the two at last year's Barclays ATP World Tour Finals was perhaps the best match of all of last year. Nadal escaped in an extremely tough third set tiebreak.

    Murray needs to leave his defensive game at the door if he wants to compete with Nadal, and he must serve at above 60 percent.

    This may be an off-year for Murray, but he's been really good against the best players when he gets a shot at them. Unfortunately, he doesn't have the weapons to beat Nadal on the red dirt.

    Prediction: Nadal through in three sets

Semifinals: Viktor Troicki

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    Overall record vs. Troicki: 4-0

    Record against Troicki on clay: 0-0

    This would be the ideal matchup for Nadal.

    Viktor Troicki has only truly challenged Nadal once, and Nadal was able to finish the match. The two have never played on clay, partially because Troicki has never made it past the Round of 32 at Roland Garros.

    Troicki's weakest surface is clay, but he's been good enough to get this far this year.

    However, if Nadal is on the other side of the court, Troicki stands no chance.

    Prediction: Nadal dominates all three sets

Semifinals: Juan Ignacio Chela

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    Overall record vs. Chela: 5-1

    Record against Chela on clay: 4-0

    Juan Ignacio Chela is making his first quarterfinal appearance in a Grand Slam since the 2007 U.S. Open. He had one other quarterfinal run, in the 2004 French Open. Andy Murray has been the one to knock Chela out in Paris the last two years, and I would be surprised if it didn't happen again.

    However, if Chela makes it all the way to the semifinals, Nadal should have no problem dismissing the Argentinian. Chela was 2-4 on clay this season before winning all four matches at the World Team Championship in Dusseldorf.

    All nine of Chela's career titles have been on clay, with six of them coming in singles play. Although clay is Chela's favorite surface, he will be no match for the mighty Nadal at Roland Garros.

    Prediction: Nadal victorious in three sets

Finals: Novak Djokovic

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    Overall record vs. Djokovic: 16-11

    Record against Chela on clay: 9-2 (Djokovic won last two)

    Novak Djokovic is the player with the best chance to end Nadal's 2011 French Open.

    These two have met in the last four Masters 1000 tournament finals, with Djokovic winning each match. The last two titles came on clay, and Djokovic didn't drop a set in either contest with Nadal.

    Djokovic's 43-match win streak is unprecedented in today's tennis world. Even Roger Federer never went on a tear at the length of Djokovic's current streak. Djokovic is already through to the semifinals, as Fabio Fognini withdrew from the quarterfinals with a slight muscle tear in his left thigh.

    The reason Djokovic has had recent success against Nadal is his ability to pound Nadal's serve. Djokovic is the best returner in tennis, and Nadal's serve isn't anywhere near the elite in the game. Djokovic gets ahead in almost every point, forcing Nadal to play more defense than he can handle.

    This is the dream matchup for anyone that wants to see the most competitive final possible

    Prediction: Nadal pulls it out in five sets

Finals: Roger Federer

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    Overall record vs. Federer: 16-8

    Record against Federer on clay: 11-2

    Roger Federer has been playing some of the best clay court tennis of his career in this tournament.

    He was the beneficiary of Nadal's one loss at Roland Garros, winning the 2009 French Open to complete the Career Grand Slam. Federer hasn't been able to beat Nadal on clay since Madrid in 2009, and he only has two career wins on clay over the Spaniard.

    For Federer to capture his second French Open title, he has to go through both players that have passed him in the rankings. Djokovic is looming in the semifinals, and Nadal could very well be the player he faces in the finals.

    If Federer ends Djokovic's streak, he'll likely be far from full strength heading into the final. Conditioning is more of an issue for Federer than it is for Nadal.

    For Federer to defeat Nadal, he has to serve a near-perfect match. As always, Nadal will be putting balls up high to the Federer backhand, and that will be the matchup that determines the match. Federer will need to be the aggressor, making all the big shots in the important points.

    Prediction: Nadal prevails in four sets

Finals: Gael Monfils

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    Overall record vs. Monfils: 8-1

    Record against Monfils on clay: 4-0

    Gael Monfils is a long-shot contender to make the finals.

    In order to win the championship in Paris, Monfils will need to beat the top three players in the world in consecutive rounds. Although it's a rare feat, Monfils is athletically gifted enough to pull it off.

    Monfils advanced to the semifinals of Roland Garros in 2008, losing to Roger Federer in the semifinals. Monfils plays his best tennis on clay because of his athleticism and defensive abilities.

    However, he's never experienced any sort of success against Nadal on clay. Nadal has never lost more than three games in any set to Monfils, usually breaking the Frenchman twice in each set.

    If these two make the final, the crowd will be on the side of Monfils. Also, it may be the most athletic final in the history of Roland Garros. Both players are more than capable of coming up with both offensive and defensive shot-making.

    Honestly, if Monfils gets by both Federer and Djokovic, I wouldn't be surprised to see him complete the string of upsets.

    Prediction: Nadal toughs it out in five sets