Rafael Nadal: Who can stop the ‘King of Clay’ at the French Open?

The Spaniard, dubbed the “King of Clay,” is the white-hot favourite to land a record-extending eleventh title at Roland Garros.

Take this beautiful statistic: Nadal owns a 79-2 win-loss report on the French Open, the place the best-of-five set format makes the 31-year-old even more durable to defeat. He is solely misplaced to Sweden’s Robin Soderling within the fourth spherical in 2009 and Novak Djokovic within the quarterfinal in 2015.

Plus, Nadal has been busy including to his trophy haul on clay within the buildup, triumphing in Monte Carlo, Barcelona after which the Italian Open in Rome Sunday.

“Rafa is for me a clear-cut favourite to win No. 11,” six-time grand slam winner Boris Becker, who was teaching Djokovic when the Serb downed Nadal in Paris three years in the past, informed CNN Sport.

“He is by far the favourite. There are a few others coming across the block, however I would not even identify them as a result of in my eyes if Rafa stays wholesome, harm free, I do not see anyone taking it however him.”

But when there may be to be a monumental upset on the French Open, who is likely to be on the opposite aspect of the online? Begin with this quintet, which does not embody the absent Roger Federer.

Novak Djokovic

Djokovic is not the participant he was in 2016, when he gained the French Open to grow to be the primary man since Rod Laver in 1969 to land 4 consecutive majors. A lack of focus, depth and an elbow injury that necessitated surgery this 12 months have all contributed to — by his requirements — a worrying stoop.

Nonetheless, Djokovic has been Nadal’s hardest opponent all through his profession — nonetheless holding a successful head-to-head report and beating him seven occasions on clay. Nobody else comes shut.

Novak Djokovic. Sketch by Gianluca Costantini.

And he was inspired by his outing towards Nadal within the Rome semifinals Saturday. Djokovic examined Nadal previous to succumbing 7-6 (7-4) 6-3. In a sign of the uneasiness Nadal feels when confronting Djokovic, he was usually passive and initially let slip a 5-2 lead within the first set.

In the event that they do sq. off once more on the French Open, 12-time grand slam winner Djokovic will certainly have benefited from enjoying Nadal within the Everlasting Metropolis, regardless of the tip consequence. It was their first conflict since Madrid final 12 months, and the hole was a lot lower than it has been at occasions.

Djokovic’s stint in Rome marked his first semifinal, too, because the Wimbledon warmup of Eastbourne final June. He has reunited with essentially the most influential coach in his profession, Marian Vajda, after splitting with tennis legend Andre Agassi and former top-10 professional Radek Stepanek.

However at this stage of his comeback, does Djokovic have it in him to beat Nadal over the best-of-five units?

Rafael Nadal. Sketch by Gianluca Costantini.

Dominic Thiem

Nadal has solely misplaced 36 occasions on clay in a top-flight profession spanning about 13 years.

However Austria’s Thiem is considered one of three gamers to have bettered the Mallorcan on clay at the least thrice, following 2004 French Open winner Gaston Gaudio and Djokovic. It was Thiem who ended Nadal’s set streak in Madrid this month.

The 24-year-old Thiem is an electrifying shotmaker and clay provides him extra time to take the larger swings he employs. He has the ability to tear by means of Nadal and strikes brilliantly, particularly on clay.

Dominic Thiem is one of only three players to have beaten Nadal three times on clay.

But the world No. 8 must progress easily within the first week to have any probability of ousting Nadal.

And word that about three weeks after Thiem conquered Nadal final 12 months in Rome, Nadal crushed his youthful rival within the French Open semifinals.

Fabio Fognini

Fabio Fognini has beaten Nadal twice on clay.

The Italian is undeniably one of many enfants horrible of tennis.

Amongst his indiscretions, Fognini was thrown out of the doubles occasion on the US Open final 12 months after insulting a feminine chair umpire in his singles loss. Extra of that habits and the tennis authorities might ban him from competing at two majors.

However when conserving his focus, Fognini is among the high gamers on the earth on clay, possessing an enormous repertoire. His lone grand slam quarterfinal got here in Paris in 2011, although he handed a walkover to Djokovic.

The world No. 19 hasn’t overwhelmed Nadal thrice on clay — however has achieved it twice in Rio and Barcelona in 2015.

Fognini’s victory in Rio was all of the extra spectacular as a result of he misplaced the primary set — and since 2014 solely three gamers have upended Nadal on clay after conceding the opener. Fognini’s excellent court docket protection was evidenced by his unbelievable pick-up on match level in Rio.

The 30-year-old additionally is aware of what it feels prefer to beat Nadal at a grand slam. In 2015 on the US Open, he became the first man to overturn a two-set deficit towards the Spaniard.

In an extra increase to his confidence, he additionally gained the primary set towards Nadal in Rome final week with spouse Flavia Pennetta — the 2015 US Open ladies’s champion — wanting on. A knee concern might have hindered him thereafter.

Kei Nishikori

In contrast to Thiem, Djokovic and Fognini, Japan’s Nishikori has by no means overwhelmed Nadal on clay. Nothing to be ashamed of there.

But he was on his solution to doing so within the 2014 Madrid Open remaining — and convincingly.

Whereas the sooner circumstances within the Spanish capital have by no means been to Nadal’s specific liking, it’s nonetheless clay and Nishikori led 6-2 4-2 in entrance of a shocked, partisan crowd.

Sadly for the 2014 US Open finalist, he started to endure from the consequences of a again harm, misplaced the second set and retired at 0-3 within the third.

Kei Nishikori lost to Nadal in the recent Monte Carlo final.

Nadal’s coach, his uncle Toni, admitted afterward: “We do not deserve the victory, he deserves it. He performed higher than us the entire time. We did not actually come again. He was harm.”

Nishikori, 28, additionally ran Nadal shut in Barcelona in 2016 and defeated him for the bronze medal on a tough court docket on the Rio Olympics in 2016, however fatigue was probably an element for the 16-time grand slam winner. Nishikori is a clutch performer, too, in deciding third or fifth units, holding a 119-38 win-loss report.

He’s nonetheless coming back from wrist surgical procedure — accidents have been an ever current for the Japanese — however one other tick within the field is that he made the ultimate in Monte Carlo in April, though he misplaced to Nadal 6-3 6-2.

Alexander Zverev

Alexander Zverev is bidding to reach a first grand slam quarterfinal at the French Open.

Eager to search out the following massive factor in a submit Huge 4 world, the ATP is placing a big chunk of its eggs within the basket of Zverev. Understandably so.

He’s solely 21 however Zverev — mentored by his fellow German Becker — has already gained three Masters shields, together with in Madrid when he toppled his pal Thiem within the finale. After Federer and Nadal, it is Zverev who comes subsequent within the Masters Sequence rankings.

Zverev packs loads of punch, as one would anticipate from somebody 6 ft 6 inches tall. However he strikes exceptionally nicely for his measurement.

Zverev held a match level towards Nadal in Indian Wells in 2016, stretched him to 5 units on the Australian Open a 12 months later and took a set off the King of Clay Sunday. If there wasn’t a rain delay within the third set when he led by a break, he might need prevailed.

Alexander Zverev. Sketch by Gianluca Costantini.

However it could be a tall order certainly for Zverev to beat Nadal on the French Open. He’ll begin because the second seed and can subsequently solely encounter Nadal within the remaining.

And Zverev, for all his prowess on the ATP tour, has by no means reached a grand slam quarterfinal or overwhelmed a top-50 participant at a significant.

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