Over the past eight years, Rafael Nadal has amassed a record of 52-1 at the French Open, the only Grand Slam tennis tournament contested on clay courts, a surface Nadal has mastered like no other player in history. Nadal’s seven titles at the tournament stand as one of the most impressive records in tennis and have helped the Spaniard to earn his nickname, the “King of Clay.” Despite his dominance over the years, this year’s French Open is far from a lockdown for Nadal, who is facing challenges that will make earning his eighth title perhaps too much to accomplish this year.
Nadal’s biggest obstacle in the way of a title is undoubtedly Novak Djokovic, the world’s number-one ranked player. The French Open is the only major title the Serb has yet to win, surely making him only hungrier to finally conquer the clay. While 2012 saw Nadal defeat Djokovic in the tournament’s final, the circumstances are quite different this year. Nadal only returned to the tour in February after taking a seven-month break to heal from knee injuries, and although he has already won three tournaments, he does not look as comfortable as he once did on court. While Nadal was out, Djokovic was tearing up the game, winning two of the biggest tournaments in the world, including the year’s first Grand Slam and the Australian Open. This success allowed Djokovic to further assert himself as the world’s top player, a title that simply cannot be argued against at the moment.
Another reason the 2013 French Open could spell trouble for Nadal is the fact that Djokovic beat him just a week ago at the Monte Carlo Masters 1000 tournament, a major clay court event that Nadal has won every year since 2005. Djokovic’s dominant, straight-set win, which was capped off with a massive inside-out forehand on match point, sent a message to Nadal and the rest of the tour of his readiness to dominate the clay this year. Additionally, one can’t help but wonder what the loss will do to Nadal’s confidence, especially considering the last time he lost in Monte Carlo was when he was 16-years old.
In addition to the threat posed by Djokovic, another factor that could prevent Nadal from grabbing his eighth French Open title is his ranking. Because of his seven-month absence, Nadal’s ranking dropped to fifth. Since the seedings for tournaments are based on the rankings, Nadal is currently slated to be seeded fifth in Paris. What this means is that he will potentially have to play one of the top four seeds in the quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals to win the event. The feat of beating just one of these top players, whether it be Djokovic, Roger Federer, or Andy Murray, is impressive in itself, while beating all three is almost unheard of. There is no question Nadal is capable of beating every player in the world on clay, but for him to beat three of the world’s top players in subsequent matches would be an extremely tall order, even for the King of Clay.
For all the adversity Nadal will face this year at the French Open, it remains difficult not to call him the favorite at the event he has won a record seven times. That said, 2013 has provided an unprecedented set of challenges for Nadal, making it perhaps the best opportunity for other competitors, most notably Djokovic, to grab the title. While we won’t know for certain what the tournament holds until the end of May, it is already clear that the 2013 French Open will be one to follow as close as ever.
Shapiro is a member of the class of 2016.