For tennis fans, the annual debate of who, if anyone, can take out Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros has officially begun following Nadal’s three set loss to Andrey Rublev at the Monte Carlo Masters; an event (along with the Barcelona Open) that Nadal has won 11 times.
Nadal’s 100-2 winning record on the Parisian clay that includes 13 titles might be the most impressive record in sport – save for Floyd Mayweather’s undefeated 50-0 boxing career – although Nadal never had the option to control the draw to avoid Federer, Murray or Djokovic until their mid-forties.
In all reasonable likelihood, Nadal’s main “challengers” in Paris are limited to the other 6 of the world’s top 7 players.
Federer is currently ranked #8 and surely no one would love to stop Rafa overtaking his record 20 Grand Slams next month than him. However, Federer has barely played in 18 months, was last seen with a knee issue, and couldn’t complete the task when at the peak of his powers. Doing so four months prior to his 40th birthday seems impossible.
Rublev, #7, who defeated Nadal last week in Monte Carlo would certainly back himself in. On the other hand his critics would point to his struggling fitness in a Quarter Final loss to compatriot Danill Medvedev at Melbourne Park. Something Nadal would easily exploit over five sets in his house of pain.
Sixth-ranked Zverev, winner of all clay court Masters events other than Monte Carlo, has recently shown himself capable of competing deep into the second week of Grand Slams and prefers playing on clay to the quicker courts.
Equally, Tsitsipas’ success at Monte Carlo means he too is a possible candidate – despite lacking consistency at grand slam level. Nonetheless, while prevailing opinion would suggest the time will come for he and Zverev – taking down Rafa at Roland Garros is the hardest task in sport. A friendly draw could help, but smart money will be elsewhere.
Dominic Thiem, however, looks destined to one day win Roland Garros, with a quarter final, two semi-finals and two second-place finishes in five years. Thiem’s biggest issues appears to be that of timing and his own creation. Few players would want to be battling injuries, form and off court stress five weeks out from the toughest test in sport. It would take a herculean effort from the Austrian at the best of times. A win following this lead up defies logic.
That leaves Medvedev and Djokovic.
As the world #2 you’d think Medvedev would be a strong chance to take Rafa’s crown. However, the 24-year old has never passed the first round at Roland Garros in four attempts. Thinking about him defeating Nadal is like to trying to run before you can walk. Next.
Alas, we are left with Djokovic. The 2016 French Open winner, who Nadal recently described as “more obsessed” with winning majors than himself, has his own motivations to defeat Nadal as they vie with Federer for the title of male tennis’ GOAT.
However, Djokovic only won in 2016 after Nadal withdrew in the third round and Nadal decisively defeated the Serbian in last year’s final 6-0, 6-2, 7-5. With Djokovic crashing out of the Monte Carlo Masters against Dan Evans, there is little reason to suggest that Nadal can’t dispatch of Novak once again when the time comes.
Ultimately, at this stage, it would seem that the greatest threat to Nadal’s 21st Grand Slam and 14th French Open is his own body breaking down. Over the course of five sets, on his favourite court on Earth, there has barely been a safer bet in sport.
What happens in Barcelona, Madrid and Rome between now and then is almost irrelevant.
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