It’s that time of the year again. The ATP tour reaches Paris for the only clay-court grand slam of the tennis calendar, at the end of a grueling clay season (Barcelona500, and Rome, Madrid and Monte Carlo Masters). 9 out of the last 10 years, since 2005, has resulted in the same boy-turned-man-turned-bulldozer standing across the net at the end of the second Sunday, biting the huge silver-plated trophy.
He is the greatest clay-court player of all time, and already one of the all-time greats at age 28. He has graduated from tight three-fourths and bandanas to loose-fitting smart shorts and tighter dry-fit tops. But his ruthlessness has remained the same, even though he hasn’t played at the same level every year. His name is Rafael Nadal, and he is almost unbeatable over 5 sets on clay. Almost, because he was beaten once in 2009 in the 4th round in a shock, by Robin Soderling. That was the only year someone else was allowed to win at Roland Garros. His name: Roger Federer.
This time around, in 2015, Federer and Nadal don’t fit in the top two favorites to win it. Nadal, despite his 9 titles, is seeded low at 7th, and is drawn to face current best player on planet Earth Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals. One way or the other, he’d have to get past Djokovic, though usually it’s the other way around—with the Serb desperately looking for the maiden Roland Garros title. It will come, no doubt, but it has to come now.
In 2015. Over two weeks.
Because Nadal is no more the force he used to be. It’s yet to be seen if he is weak enough to be beaten over 5 sets, because even if he isn’t ready physically, he is never mentally beaten. Only deep into the last set will one notice signs of vulnerability and nervousness, and that last set happens quite often lately. Nadal failed to win a single clay Masters title leading up to Paris, for the first time since 2005. There were years when he won all 3 Masters titles, and rarely dropped a set at Paris. But times change, and Champions wither. Nadal is still the French Open Champion, and it’s amazing how his stock has dropped over the last injury-prone year. Many writers, like yours truly, have already begun writing articles about him with a eulogy-tinged tone, as if all his titles have been stripped away from him.
The fact is: Djokovic is winning every single tournament he enters. He is that unstoppable force Nadal once used to be, but on all courts. Federer had two years like that in the mid-2000s, and Djokovic is rewriting history. He has won almost everything except Dubai this year. He is yet to be beaten on clay in 2015.
On the other hand, Andy Murray is also unbeaten on clay this year. He has won two tournaments, one of them the Madrid Masters title. He had never won a clay title before 2015. He looks fit, and raring to go. What’s more, he destroyed Nadal in the Madrid final. That monkey is now off his back. He will face Ferrer in the quarters, if things go according to plan. He has it relatively easier, but will face the winner of Djokovic and Nadal in the semifinal.
Roger Federer will have to first overcome Monfils in the 4th round before taking on Wawrinka in the quarterfinal. Then he will face the winner of the other quarterfinal between (hopefully) Berdych and Nishikori, if we go according to seeds. So Federer will not have to face Murray, Djokovic or Nadal till the finals. That is a straightforward draw for the Swiss Champion, who is on the wane this year after a stellar 2014. He is still ranked 2, and is benefiting from the draw.
Milos Raonic has pulled out, while others like Tsonga, Ferrer, Del Potro, Monfils, Simon, Cilic and Tomic will remain in contention.
Will there finally be a new French Open Champion?
Possibly, now more than ever.