Who's the Real 2014 French Open Favorite: Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic?

Lindsay Gibbs@linzsports Featured ColumnistMay 20, 2014

Serbia's Novak Djokovic, right, holds the winner's trophy, as Spain's Rafael Nadal holds the second placed trophy during the awarding ceremony of the Italian Open tennis tournament, in Rome, Sunday, May 18, 2014. Novak Djokovic extended his recent dominance over Rafael Nadal by rallying for a 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory Sunday to win the Italian Open for the third time. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
Andrew Medichini/Associated Press

For the first time in nearly a decade, the men's trophy at the French Open feels up for grabs.

Sure, according to the oddsmakers—as can be seen on Oddschecker.comRafael Nadal is still the favorite. Why wouldn't he be? He is the No. 1 player in the world and has won the French Open eight times in the last nine years. His record in Paris is a laughably dominant 59-1.

This year, however, Novak Djokovic is nipping at his heels. In fact, after Djokovic took out Nadal in the final of the Rome Masters on Sunday, many are calling the two co-favorites. (Shots like the one below certainly help Djokovic's case.)

So what happened this year to make the French Open a tossup? Well, it just so happens that the King of Clay has looked awfully common at times on the surface that he's dominated for the past nine years.

Since the ATP World Tour came to Europe for the clay season in April, Nadal has played in his usual four tournaments. He's 11-3 in that timespan with only one title. It's the first time in his entire career that he's coming into the French Open with only one title on clay.

It's been particularly shocking to see the caliber of players he's lost to. His first two losses came to fellow Spaniards David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro in the quarterfinals of Monte Carlo and Barcelona, respectively. His form has improved a bit the last two weeks in the Masters 1000s in Madrid and Rome, but he never looked quite like the best clay-court player of all time.

Ferrer upset Nadal in Monte Carlo.
Ferrer upset Nadal in Monte Carlo.Michel Euler/Associated Press

In Madrid, Nadal was trailing in the final to Kei Nishikori, a 24-year-old Japanese player who just last week cracked the top 10. The world No. 1 was down a set and a break to Nishikori before the upstart's back gave out. Nishikori had to retire in the third set, giving Nadal his fourth Madrid title. However, even Nadal's coach, Uncle Toni, didn't think his nephew deserved the trophy.

In Rome, Nadal was pushed to the brink by players such as Gilles Simon and Andy Murray (who has never beaten a top-eight player on clay) before falling to Djokovic in the final. Of course, Nadal lost to Djokovic in two clay-court finals in 2011 before going on and winning Roland Garros that year, but both men were playing at a much higher level then.

This year, Nadal's confidence has wavered, he's often lacked depth and aggression on his forehand, and his court position has been far too defensive to intimidate.

Still, he's Rafael Nadal. He's looked shaky to certain degrees before and stepped it up at Roland Garros. Plus, it's not like his clay season has been a complete disaster. Chris Chase of USA Today's For The Win does a good job of putting Nadal's past two months into context:

It's easy to lose perspective. For anyone else, one title, one finals loss and an 11-3 record during the European swing would be an exceptional way to enter the French Open. For Nadal, it's catastrophe.

All of these numbers are only surprising because Nadal set the bar so high. We've been spoiled by his greatness so much that it makes the very good seem pedestrian. That 78.6 winning percentage is better than the lifetime clay winning percentages of every active player, including Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. Nadal's worst is better than everybody else's best.

Perhaps Nadal's biggest problem isn't his own game, but the guy right behind him in the rankings, Mr. Djokovic. The French Open is the only major tournament that the Serb hasn't won, and he's made no secret of his desire to win the trophy and achieve a career Grand Slam.

Djokovic struggled with a wrist injury earlier in the clay season, contributing to his loss to Roger Federer in Monte Carlo and his withdrawal from Madrid. But he played himself into form throughout the week in Rome, and his win over Nadal has given the world No. 2 a big boost.

After his win in Rome, Djokovic told the press, including ATPWorldTour.com, that his wrist is feeling better and he has a lot of confidence heading into Roland Garros:

It's been a great week considering where I've been a few weeks ago with the wrist injury. Luckily for me, I played with no pain and increased the level of tennis as the week went on. I've had some tough matches.

Four out of five matches were three-setters and I had to come back from one set down yesterday against [Milos] Raonic and today again. That gives me a lot of confidence. Winning against Rafa in the final of a big tournament on clay, his preferred surface, is definitely a confidence booster.

If Nadal and Djokovic do meet up in the French Open final, there will be added motivation for the Serb—he will be playing to take the No. 1 ranking back. Though Nadal leads their career head-to-head 22-19, Djokovic has won the last four times the two have played.

Wacky things have happened on the ATP this year. Stanislas Wawrinka won the Australian Open and then backed that up by winning his first Masters 1000 title in Monte Carlo. A new generation of players such as Grigor Dimitrov, Raonic and Nishikori have finally broken out of their shells to look like consistent threats on big stages week in and week out.

And each of the men in the Big Four have looked shockingly ordinary at times throughout the year.

But Roland Garros is Nadal's house. His record at the tournament is so extraordinary that, in my opinion, he will be the favorite there until the day he retires. That's nothing at all against Djokovic; Nadal's just earned the right to be feared in Paris. Still, 2014 feels different, and it wouldn't be completely shocking to see Djokovic—or even someone else in the field—upset the status quo.

One thing is certain: It's going to be a lot of fun to see how it all plays out.