Will Rafael Nadal, the “King of Clay”, reign once again at the French Open in 2008? The Spaniard will of course start as favourite for the climax of the clay court season, but there are others hoping to topple him from his throne.
Nadal has no doubts about the overall supremacy of his great rival in the game, Roger Federer. “Roger is the best player of all time and me, I am the number two in the world,” he recently told German daily Die Welt. However, on European clay it’s been a rather different story over the last few years.
Nadal burst onto the scene in 2005 at the tender age of 18, taking the French Open title for the first time and embarking on his Open-era record unbeaten run on the dirt that would go on to last an astounding 81 matches - until Federer himself ended it in emphatic fashion in the Hamburg final last year.
This year the Spaniard arrives in Paris looking for a fourth consecutive Roland Garros crown in fine form, after avenging that Hamburg defeat against Federer in last week’s Hamburg final. He’s lost only once this year on clay, to fellow Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero in Rome when struggling with a foot injury.
Federer has been the ATP’s top-ranked player since February 2004. His domination of the game since then has been almost complete. The Swiss ace has now amassed 12 Grand Slam titles as he bears down on Pete Sampras’ record of 14.
However, the one jewel missing from his crown is that elusive French Open title. In 2006 and 2007 he managed to reach the final at Roland Garros, but each time was thwarted by Nadal - a pattern repeated many times in the warm-up events of the clay court swing.
This season, Federer has been hampered by mononucleosis, which effectively dashed his hopes of retaining his Australian Open title, and ruined the first part of the season. However, he’s now beginning to get back to his best and was in stunning form in Hamburg - until the final against Nadal.
There, he threw away a 5-1 lead in the opening set, and a 5-2 lead in the second before finally collapsing in the third to surrender the title he’d won four times previously to his greatest rival.
But there is an upside to the tale. Federer obviously has the game to challenge the undisputed “King of Clay.” But can he find a way to close the deal when it counts on the biggest stage of all?
The young pretender
Novak Djokovic arrives at Roland Garros as the leader of this season’s ATP race, taking into account only performances from 2008, making him the favourite to possibly remove Federer from the top of the rankings later this year, after beating him on the way to his first major title in Australia. He’s already claimed one Masters Series title on clay, taking advantage of Nadal’s loss to Ferrero in Rome.
The Serb reached the semi-finals in Paris last year before being dismantled in straight sets by Nadal. However, there are signs that he’s catching up.
In Hamburg he pushed the Spaniard all the way to a deciding set in the semi-finals. Further development could see him become a real force on clay in the future, but this year’s championship could come too soon for the man earmarked as heir apparent to Federer.
Nikolay Davydenko is the quiet man of tennis. Unassuming, humble, nicknamed “the Stakhanovite” (after the legendary Soviet miner) for his habit of playing more tournaments than any of the other top players.
The Russian has reached at least the quarter-finals in Paris for the last three years, and his form this term has been a revelation following the match-fixing scandal that wrecked the latter half of his 2007 season.
His fitness and ability to turn defence into attack make him a dangerous proposition on any surface, but he has yet to reach a major final, a statistic that seems unlikely to change after disappointing results in the last two tournaments leading up to Roland Garros.
Date created : 2008-05-21