Fri, May 23, 2014 - Page 19 News List

Rivals eye chinks in Nadal’s armor at French Open


Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates after winning the ATP Rome Tennis Masters final against Rafael Nadal of Spain on Sunday at the Foro Italico in Rome.

Photo: AFP

Say it quietly, but some chinks are appearing in the suit of the armor that Rafael Nadal usually wears on a clay court as the Spaniard sets his sights on a ninth French Open title.

By his high standards, the 28-year-old Spaniard has suffered a mediocre season on Europe’s red-dust courts so far and one or two players, chiefly Novak Djokovic, will arrive in Paris with genuine title hopes.

World No. 1 Nadal has lost three matches on his beloved clay in the buildup to Roland Garros for the first time in a decade, while others he normally sweeps aside on the surface have pushed him mighty close.

Fellow Spaniard David Ferrer, the man he beat to become the first man to win a single Grand Slam eight times last year, surprised him in Monte Carlo, then he lost to compatriot Nicolas Almagro in Barcelona and last weekend he was overwhelmed by Djokovic in the Italian Open final.

Even his 44th career title on clay, achieved in Madrid earlier this month, was not totally convincing as he was outplayed for a set in the final by Kei Nishikori, before the Japanese player retired with back problems.

That said, the alarm bells will not be ringing yet in the Nadal camp ahead of the Grand Slam, which begins on Sunday.

Roland Garros remains a fortress for Nadal, where he has suffered only one defeat since winning the title on his debut in 2005. Swede Robin Soderling is the only man to beat Nadal there and his record is an astonishing 59-1.

Beating him over five sets on clay has proved almost impossible and once he gets into his stride on Paris’ relative fast and bouncy claycourts, he appears unstoppable.

Djokovic got to the brink of victory last year in a spellbinding five-set semi-final lasting four-and-a-half-hours, after which Nadal said that he “enjoyed suffering” the kind of physical punishment dished out by the Serb.

However, the scars build up over the years and Nadal now looks more vulnerable to the kind of attacking onslaught that the likes of Djokovic, Australian Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka, Andy Murray when he is in the mood and Nishikori can unleash.

Nadal is still the bookmakers’ favorite to prolong his reign in Paris and can be relied upon to raise his level a notch or two over the next two weeks.

“I feel good physically. I’m feeling better and better physically, better than a year ago,” said Nadal, who has appeared untroubled by his suspect knees this year. “This is the most important thing. Mentally, I am still excited about what I’m doing. It still makes me happy. I still feel fortunate that I am doing what I’m doing.”

Djokovic, who is closing in on Nadal in the ATP rankings, is also fighting fit after a wrist-injury scare that forced him to miss the Madrid Masters this month.

The Serb was imperious in Rome, coming back from a set down to dominate Nadal in the final as he beat his great rival for the fourth time in succession.

“Winning a final of a great tournament with Rafa on clay is definitely an ultimate challenge,” Djokovic, bidding to complete his career Grand Slam, said after his Rome triumph. “I am very happy with my game and I hope I can carry it to the Roland Garros.”

Roger Federer, who is scheduled to arrive in Paris with double the amount of children he had 12 months ago after fathering a second set of twins, would dearly love to double his French Open title haul.

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