Ranking Rafael Nadal's Biggest Obstacles to Winning Another French Open
Nine months is a long time—anyone who's had a baby knows that. Believe it or not, that's how long Rafael Nadal recently went without a singles title. Back winning silverware once more, however, his fans will hope he can push on and claim his 10th French Open title later this summer.
But can he do it?
Undoubtedly, there are a lot of obstacles standing between him and glory at Roland Garros, but as he's the "King of Clay" it's incredibly difficult to look past him as the main favourite.
With plenty of time between now and May to get into form, it's certainly not beyond the realms of possibility that the 28-year-old Spaniard could recapture the fire that has helped him win five consecutive Slams on French soil.
Here we rank the biggest barriers to Nadal's success, with preference weighted toward the top-seeded players as well as to recent developments in the men's game.
Feel like we've left something out? Have your own say in the comments thread as to what you reckon might impede him most of all.
Aside from the main contenders that are likely to push Nadal hard, there are a handful of other factors that could get in the way of yet another clay-court title.
After all, tennis is a hugely personal game.
Alone on the court with only his skills to rely on, he'll have to fight a number of internal battles, too.
Age is not on his side
In the second week of the French Open, Nadal will turn 29 years of age.
To put that into context, Roger Federer has only taken home one Grand Slam title since he reached that same age. That is certainly going to be a factor for the Spaniard in the coming years, make no mistake.
He's going to need some more of that famous resilience if he's to stave off the effects of time, that's for sure.
Potential injuries could crop up
A testing schedule over the next few weeks should provide us all with a greater insight into just how ready he'll be to defend his crown in Paris.
But it could also prove to be a hindrance for the player, too.
Crippled with injury last season, he wasn't afforded the time to have a big impact. And if he's not careful, a recurrence of his knee or back injuries could scupper his chances yet again.
After all, he's booked in to play Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid and Rome beforehand.
Pressure of bettering Guillermo Vilas' record
As reported by ESPN, he needs just three more clay-court titles to go level with Guillermo Vilas at the top of the tree and truly earn his moniker as the best to ever play on the surface.
The 63-year-old Argentinian rose to fame in the 70s, so his personal accolade has stood for quite some time.
Of course, he'll need to ensure he keeps a level head and focuses on his tennis instead of letting the pressure of a historic win get to him.
5. New Wave of Young Stars
Propping up our list is the fact there is a wave of young stars itching to cause an upset.
And you can be sure there won't be any love lost in the city of romance as they attempt to do so.
Yes, Nadal plays best on the crushed orange sand—he always has done. But wherever there are big names, there's the possibility of an even bigger upset.
With names like Nick Kyrgios, Borna Coric and Thanasi Kokkinakis continuing to make great inroads with every month, it's possible the nine-time Roland Garros champion could see himself embroiled in a testing encounter, ambushed in the high grass.
Even using his battle against Dominic Thiem from 2014 as a measuring stick, it's clear the precedents are there for young upstarts to make their mark, as shown in the highlights package above.
Holding his own in some of the rallies, he played some fantastic tennis and had the crowd engaged with some relentless play, despite losing.
Sparring at the net and even managing to serve with power and purpose, the 21-year-old Austrian took seven games off Nadal. As pointed out by Razwan Mirza of Sky Sports, that was even more than Andy Murray managed.
Don't be surprised to see some gruelling matches face the reigning champion when the big tournament rolls into view. How he deals with some of the youthful challengers could well determine just how happy he is at the denouement.
4. Nadal's Form Between Now and May
As pointed out in the introduction, Nadal has a busy clay season ahead of him.
Although he must go to both Indian Wells and Miami before any of that, all eyes should already be fixated on how he'll do in Monte Carlo and beyond.
After all, while his title win in Buenos Aires was a fantastic triumph, there was little in the way of any real competition as he swept aside all challengers in his path.
Yet the likelihood is, in each of the four warm-up competitions he'll enter, he should face a good few meaningful tests, and those will act as a barometer for his potential success, no doubt.
Should the Olympic gold medallist build up some momentum, get through them all without injury and shift back into top gear, he'll once more be a force to be reckoned with on the big stage.
Improving everyday, per Rex Gowar of Reuters, Nadal is likely regaining the self-assurance he's been without in recent times.
I said when I arrived in Buenos Aires I feel close to level than one month ago. Winning titles helps to continue working, the injuries are in the past, I have no physical problems. In term of tennis, in the past I have been able to get back to my best level [after injury]. As you get older it gets harder, but I don't see why not, I have the motivation and passion.
The 14-time Grand Slam champion should see his confidence rise with a series of wins in the coming weeks.
And with self-belief now back on his side, it's going to be difficult to bet against him.
3. The Challenges of Andy Murray and Kei Nishikori
Thinking back on how Nadal began 2015 reveals a defeat to Andy Murray in Abu Dhabi.
And although it was on a hard court, it's still tempting to look at it as evidence of just how far the world No. 3 has seen the gulf in class eaten away by the Scotsman.
Controlling the match from the off, Murray made light work of what could have been a strenuous affair. Stretching his opponent with some confident strokes, he took full advantage of his early season form to wrap up a deserved victory.
Of course, Murray has never won the French Open and will be considered a surprise finalist, but with a precedent of a win already this season, it's not naive to suggest the Glasgow-born star could push Nadal all the way should they meet.
Also on the radar of potential threats will be Kei Nishikori.
As pointed out by Bleacher Report featured columnist Jeremy Eckstein, he can do some damage against the Spaniard, and history has proved it.
He clearly bothered Nadal at Madrid, carving out delicious angles and playing with a champion's ferocity. Nishikori has some of the best reflexes in tennis and an [Andre] Agassi-like ability to take the ball early. He also has a personified example of inspiration in coach Michael Chang to remind him that improbable dreams like the 1989 French Open are possible realities.
Now the world No. 4, Japan's finest tennis player in recent memory would surely relish recording his first-ever win over the Spaniard at the French Open.
Also, a win would go a long way to make up for the disappointment he suffered against Nadal back in 2013, when he lost 6-4 6-1 6-3.
2. Roger Federer
Experiencing an upturn in form and fortune since the end of the Australia Open, Roger Federer recently added to his Brisbane International title by winning the Dubai Championship as well.
In the course of claiming both honours, he pushed past his 1,000th professional win as well as surpassing the 9,000 aces mark—both confirmation of his ability to still push himself and reach new milestones.
Even at 33 years of age, he's still got it in him to compete with the best.
And it would be difficult to blame Nadal for wanting to avoid Federer when the draw is made for the "Coupe des Mousquetaires."
Interestingly, Nadal has won the last five meetings between the pair on any surface, with the "Federer Express" last managing to beat his archrival as far back as 2012, per the ATP's official website.
Indeed, despite the fact the Swiss supremo has never beaten the reigning champions in the French capital, the signs are there that Fed could cause him some real problems, especially if his recent form is anything to go by.
With two titles already in the bag in 2015, the world No. 2 has a bottomless pit of confidence having already managed to beat Novak Djokovic, the only player currently ahead of him in the rankings.
In my recent analysis of Federer's improvements at Dubai for Bleacher Report, I drew a line under his net play which has come on leaps and bounds since the start of the year. Unafraid to actively approach the net for winners, he's also pouncing on short balls, and he's making great headway from this approach.
Thus, if Nadal should heed this warning and look to counter it by serving impeccably and playing more powerful tennis, the Swiss legend will find it difficult to make his net play count as effectively.
1. Novak Djokovic
As the current world No. 1, Novak Djokovic is clearly the main blockade between Nadal and an unprecedented 10th Slam in Paris.
True, the Spanish warrior has never lost to Djoker in the tournament before, but he has fallen foul of his talents on numerous occasions.
Suffice to say Nadal is not an invincible force, despite the fact he boasts over 300 wins on that surface alone.
According to the ATP website, the "King of Clay" has suffered defeat against the Serbian in Rome, Monte Carlo and Madrid.
In fact, the top-ranked player has managed to win four of their last 10 encounters on the more popular red clay surfaces.
Nadal has always been the superior player on what is affectionately dubbed the "sticky stuff" by some commentators. Commanding superiority with his deadly left-handed topspin, he forces his opponents to defend balls at an awkward height.
Combine this with his tremendous athleticism and he has the complete package that even the more well-rounded players find nearly impossible to deal with.
Against Djokovic, a performer who prefers to engage with battles from the baseline, Nadal's strengths seem all the more incredible when they work out. However, as recent results have shown, the world No. 1 has become increasingly adept at cancelling them out and he's managed this through increased aggression and determination.
Naturally inclined to win at the French Open, if Nadal can stick to his personal set of weapons, he'll emerge victorious, but if they do meet, it definitely won't be a walk in the park.