The second Grand Slam of the ATP Calendar begins on 25th May, and it’s going to be one of the most interesting Major tournaments of the decade.
A few years ago, not many would have thought that the French Open would ever have an open field—where a sole winner is difficult to predict, and where there are atleast 3 major contenders. Usually, it’d be Wimbledon with an open field, simply because Federer’s glorious years were coming to an end.But Roland Garros ’14 will be a sight to savour. Yes, Rafael Nadal is the 8-time (defending) Champion, and he has won all but one in the last decade. Common sense would make him a blind choice for yet another Clay major title, even if based on his recent past record.
But there is something below the surface that only Nadal can feel.
Over the years, his dominance on this surface has been second to nobody in the history of men’s tennis. Even after a 7 month layoff, coming back from a career-threatening injury into clay court season in 2013, he managed to win the French Open without being challenged by a serious contender. He wasn’t even at his best, but he is often off the blocks, sprinting, from March to May—his favorite part of every year. But 2014 has been different.
A heartbreaking loss to first-time Champ Stan Wawrinka at the Aussie Open (after defeating Federer), has been followed by just one Masters title in clay court season—that after Djokovic was ruled out, and Federer/Murray lost early on. He never heads into Paris with less than 2 Masters title and an ATP500 clay title for the season, but here he has lost in Barcelona, Monte Carlo to players like Almagro and Ferrer. His countrymen aren’t necessarily better than him right now, but Nadal lacks confidence heading into his favorite tournament. Contenders haven’t been playing catchup anymore—they’re on par, for most time, and even guys like Murray on clay have been giving Nadal a scare.
That he manages to squeeze through despite his loss of form is a testament to his grit and spirit, but how long can that last during a sapping best-of-5 Major tournament?
Perhaps Nadal knows that if he steps off the peddle in a Masters event, he has little chances of fighting back as compared to going off the boil mid-match in a Grand Slam event. There are not many that can outmuscle him over 5 sets, and he is aware that momentum plays more of a long-term role in these tournaments. Therefore, the opponents that manage to trump him in lesser tournaments suddenly find themselves short on fuel and inspiration after the third set. And how to wrestle the initiative back after a third set, like a python squeezing its’ prey for eventual doom—nobody knows that better than the Spanish Warrior.
Djokovic will have had a good look at the draw. He faces the possibility of Federer in the semifinal and Nadal for the title. Nadal, meanwhile, will consider himself lucky to escape Djokovic before the final. He will have to contend with Wawrinka and Ferrer though, who are no mugs anymore on their day. To see if they can duel with the Spanish Champion over a prolonged period of gameplay on the slowest surface though, will be interesting, and not as one-sided as one may imagine.
This is a bold one. I predict Novak Djokovic to win his first French Open title, after a pretty disappointing season so far. The Rome Masters title has helped quite a bit, and I expect him to complete his career Grand Slam in two weeks.