Rafael Nadal might be seen by some as losing his grip on the French Open crown, but his main rivals for the title don’t share that view ahead of Sunday’s opening day at Roland Garros.
The 27-year-old Spaniard has been strangely subdued during the long buildup to the consecration of the claycourt tennis season with just the one title to his name – at Madrid when Japan’s Kei Nishikori was forced to retire in the final with a back injury.
Quarter-final defeats to David Ferrer in Monte Carlo and Nicolas Almagro in Barcelona were shocking and he was swept aside in the second and third sets by Novak Djokovic in the Rome final last week.
But ATP tour events are one thing, taking on eight-time winner Nadal at his Roland Garros stronghold is quite another.
French hope Jo-Wilfried Tsonga said that it would be pure folly to downplay the Spaniard’s hopes of a record ninth title in Paris.
“If we have to look at the results these last couple of weeks, of course we can say that,” he said.
“But when we look, you know, in the past, there is no reason to say Rafa is different than the other years.”
“You know, he’s still the same guy, the same champion, and I’m sure he wants to win again here in Roland Garros.”
Words echoed by Andy Murray, who led Nadal 4-2 in the deciding set in the Rome quarter-finals last week before losing it 7-5.
It would not take long, he said, to establish whether or not there were any chinks in the Nadal armory.
“Normally when the tournament starts, you know, whether Rafa has been playing well or not, I would expect him to play great tennis here,” the Wimbledon champion said.
“I would expect Novak to play great tennis here. Roger, I would also expect to play very well.”
“So there is nothing there to suggest that they are all of a sudden going to stop performing well in the slams and struggle. I would expect them to all have great tournaments.”
For Djokovic the win over Nadal in Rome was encouraging, but he knows from past experience that getting the better of Nadal in the year’s second Grand Slam is a different challenge altogether.
He has played the Spaniard five times at Roland Garros in their marathon rivalry and lost all five times – albeit getting closer to turning the tables every time.
“The tournament win in Rome came at the right moment for me,” he said.
“For my confidence level it’s definitely a booster and positive thing, and hopefully I can carry that confidence coming into Roland Garros.”
“But it’s obviously different than the Rome tournament. It’s a Grand Slam. It’s a two?weeks long event, best of five, and there is a feeling that most of the players who are participating in the event have an extra motivation to perform well in this tournament comparing to the other events.”
Nadal for his part believes it is all about momentum and being in prime form at just the right time.
“Rome, Monte Carlo, Madrid, Barcelona is past now. We are here in Roland Garros, and the only thing that matters now is have a good practice when I will be able to finish with the press,” he said at his pre-tournament media conference.
“I will practice today, will practice tomorrow, good practice on Sunday, and try to be ready for the competition, no?”
“The dynamic is positive, it’s true, so that’s always important for the confidence. I felt that in Rome I was able to play with not that much nerves, that anxiety that I played in the first two tournaments and some moments in Madrid, too.”