Rafael Nadal can become the first man to win the same Grand Slam title eight times at the French Open with few willing to risk talking down the rejuvenated Spaniard’s chances.
Having pulled clear of Bjorn Borg’s record of six wins at Roland Garros with a seventh championship last year, the 26-year-old has already confounded the critics who had written him off during a seventh-month injury absence.
Since his return to the tour in February, Nadal has shaken off the heartbreak of missing the Olympics, as well as the US and Australian Opens, to collect six titles from eight finals.
Supercharged by that astonishing run, Nadal now has the opportunity to genuinely confirm himself as one of the greats of the sport.
No man has ever collected more than seven titles at the same major.
Roy Emerson, with six, is the Australian Open’s most successful while William Renshaw, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer all triumphed at Wimbledon seven times each.
Bill Larned, Bill Tilden and Richard Sears were seven-time winners at the US Open.
Since his French Open debut in 2005, Nadal has only lost once — an injury-hit fourth round exit to free-hitting Robin Soderling in 2009.
His record stands at 52 wins against just that single blip against the Swede.
This year, Nadal may have lost his Monte Carlo Masters title to world No. 1 Novak Djokovic after an eight-year monopoly, but he swept to victory on clay in Madrid and Rome where he allowed Federer just four games in the final.
He is on a 15-match winning streak and being seeded three at Roland Garros this year after the withdrawal of Andy Murray makes today’s draw compulsive viewing.
Djokovic, beaten in last year’s final, or Federer, who has lost four title matches to Nadal at the tournament, will find they have the Spaniard as a potential semi-final opponent.
Nadal insists his run this year has taken even him by surprise after his second round exit at Wimbledon last year at the hands of world No. 100 Lukas Rosol sent him home to Manacor to rest-up his suspect knees.
“If you told me four or five months ago that after eight tournaments I would have won six titles from eight finals, I would say you are crazy,” said Nadal, who spends less time on the practice courts to protect his aching joints.
Djokovic, who captured the season’s opening major in Australia, needs a French Open to join Nadal and Federer as active players to have completed a career Grand Slam.
However, he has endured a bittersweet relationship with Roland Garros, seeing a 41-match winning streak ended by Federer in the semi-finals in 2011 before losing last year’s final to Nadal.
That final was completed on the third Monday because of rain. When play was suspended on the Sunday, the Serb, having dropped the first two sets, had taken the third and was a break up in the fourth.
Victory would have given him the coveted Grand Slam.
Having relieved Nadal of his Monte Carlo title last month, Djokovic lost his Madrid opener to Grigor Dimitrov and then slumped to a quarter-final loss in Rome to the dangerous Tomas Berdych.
“I believe that I can go all the way in Paris. It’s a very long tournament,” said the Serb, who has a 15-19 career record against Nadal.
After world No. 2 Murray, a semi-finalist two years ago, pulled out to nurse his injured back ahead of Wimbledon, Nadal and Djokovic should have their only serious rival in Federer, the record 17-time Grand Slam title winner and the champion in Paris in 2009 when he defeated Nadal’s shock conqueror, Soderling.