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Saturday, May 24, 2008
Updated: June 5, 3:28 PM ET
Keeping a watchful eye on the big three

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

Editor's note: During the French Open, ESPN.com will track the highs and lows of the big three -- Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic -- the prohibitive favorites on the men's side.

Thursday, June 5

PARIS -- Confidence is a wonderful thing in tennis.

It can free you to keep swinging for the lines, even when it matters most. It can sustain you in dark times and carry you indefinitely -- as long as it lasts.

Roger Federer
Roger Federer wouldn't be looking past his semifinal opponent, would he?

Roger Federer, who has been the No. 1-ranked player for more than four years, has developed an unnatural confidence. It has brought him 12 Grand Slam singles titles, and perhaps one day it will bring him the title of the greatest to ever play the game.

On Thursday, his confidence was again on display on Court 5 during an early afternoon practice. Federer, who will play Gael Monfils in a Friday semifinal, was hitting opposite a young player, as is often his custom.

But this practice partner was left-handed. Monfils is right-handed.

It turned out to be Jonathan Dasnieres de Veigy, a 21-year-old Frenchman who lost in the first round of qualifying here.

Federer's modus operandi is to pluck the finest practice partners from the junior and younger professional ranks. As soon as Rafael Nadal became a threat at Roland Garros, Federer began to line up practice partners who could simulate his left-handed, top-spin-heavy, cross-court forehand -- hit to his backhand. Dialing in to those high kickers has helped Federer compete with Nadal on clay and, on one occasion (Hamburg, 2007), beat him.

Dasnieres de Veigy is ranked No. 403 among ATP players and has played Futures and Challengers so far in his career. On Thursday afternoon, he grooved many forehands to Federer's backhand.

But what about Monfils?

Could it be that Federer's confidence is so high, he is looking past Monfils, already focusing on his archrival Nadal, who happens to be left-handed?

We shall see Friday.

-- Greg Garber

Wednesday, June 4
Sixteen straight semifinals. Grand Slam semifinals, that is, for Roger Federer. That's not only sibilant, it's remarkable. Here at Roland Garros, his streak dates back to 2005. His last loss in an earlier round was handed to him by a player who recently retired.

Roger Federer
The last time Roger Federer failed to reach a Grand Slam semifinal was here at the French Open in 2004.
"Yeah, the last one who defeated me here in semifinals was Guga, three sets, quick match,'' Federer said, referring to the incandescent Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil. "Everybody was happy,'' he added, drawing laughter. "But it was a great match playing Guga here in Roland Garros. It's like playing Agassi in America or Hewitt in Australia or Henman in Wimbledon.''

Inevitably, the questioners turned to whom Federer -- assuming he gets past local hero Gael Monfils -- would rather play to try to nail down the one Slam that has eluded him. Federer demurred at first, although everyone in the room knew what the choice was all about -- going up against Rafael Nadal, one of the best ever, which would presumably sweeten the victory, or playing on more level ground against Novak Djokovic. Is a win a win?

"No, I have no preference for the semifinals nor for the final,'' Federer said. "My only preference is I want to win both matches.'' But he quickly changed his tune. "I'd love to play Rafa, because we've been rivals for quite a long time. … I think this will be the ultimate test on clay this year.''

Or perhaps any year.

Tuesday, June 3
Could this tournament be any more tranquillo for Rafael Nadal as he goes for the quadruple? He eviscerated fellow Spaniard Nicolas Almagro on Tuesday in an 114-minute quarterfinal -- the exact same time it took him to swat away another seeded Spanish player, Fernando Verdasco, in the round of 16.

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal had plenty of time for a birthday celebration, making quick work of Nicolas Almagro.

"I didn't feel calm, no?'' Nadal said with the typical serious squint he wears in the interview room. "I have the same pressure like everybody. I feel nervous before the match always. The results was calm, but the feeling not.''

Nonetheless, Nadal may have expended more energy on his own 22nd birthday celebration. Engulfed by a huge, camera-and-notebook-wielding crowd of party crashers, Nadal left his postmatch press conference late in the afternoon and walked directly upstairs to the patio of the press café at Philippe Chatrier Stadium. It's become an annual ritual at the French Open -- after all, who doesn't like toasting a winner? Nadal beamed as tournament staff sang "Happy Birthday'' to him, then good-naturedly cut his own elaborate, three-tiered cake and passed out flutes of champagne.

Slams are supposed to get harder as they go along, but Nadal's tournament has gone against the grain. His average time on court after five matches is 2 hours, 3 minutes, and he had only one set extend to 7-5 (in the first round against Brazilian qualifier Thomaz Bellucci). For those of you scoring at home, Nadal is now 26-0 at Roland Garros, has won 34 of the past 35 sets, and is up to 39-0 in best-of-five clay-court matches, counting Davis Cup and Masters Series finals under the old format.

Monday, June 2
Even with a slight dip in form the last few months, it's rare that Roger Federer has to utter the following sentence: "For me, it's an interesting match, because last time we played I lost.''

Federer was referring to his quarterfinals opponent Fernando Gonzalez of Chile, who ended a long run of futility against the world No. 1 last November at the year-end championships in Shanghai. Gonzalez was working on an 0-for-10 drought against Federer, including a straight-sets defeat in the 2007 Australian Open final.

Roger Federer
Roger Federer is 10-1 in his career versus Fernando Gonzalez.
Gonzalez' defeat of Federer in round-robin play in China raised some eyebrows because it was the first time Federer -- who lost to David Nalbandian the previous week in the Masters Series event in Paris -- had suffered back-to-back losses since 2003.

Federer paid the proper respect to Gonzalez, saying, "he doesn't blow you away from the first shot. He's also [a] very streaky player. He can go on a great roll at times, you know. But you've got to go against it. Important is to serve well, and also try to put him on the back foot. I think you also have to play aggressive.

"[He] hasn't lost basically on clay this season yet, you know, so it's a tough match. He had a great win against Stan [Wawrinka] the other day.''

What Federer didn't say -- and what Gonzalez' coach Larry Stefanki revealed in the bowels of Suzanne Lenglen Stadium after Gonzalez dispatched Robby Ginepri -- was that the two had a bit of a hit on the Thursday before the tournament.

"Two tight, tight sets,'' Stefanki said, clearly relishing the memory. "We played for about two hours. It was fun, it was great. Roger wasn't too happy about it.

"Fernando likes playing Roger, he likes his style. He likes to step around and whack forehands and play in that left corner, and they both slide. They both come into net. They've been good friends since their junior days.''

Sunday, June 1

Fed vs. the Bryans

PARIS -- It apparently makes no difference to Roger Federer that the Bryans play doubles while he plays singles.

The world No. 1 has managed to construct a bit of a personal rivalry with the No. 1 doubles duo to keep things interesting.

According to the Bryans, Federer periodically checks in with them in the locker room regarding their title tally, making sure that he is still in the lead with 54.

"He always asks us how many titles we have," said an amused Mike Bryan, who has won 47 titles with his twin brother and two additional trophies with other partners during his career.

Recently when Federer stopped the Bryans for an accounting update they decided to pose what they thought would be a huge challenge -- could he name all 54 of his titles in order of how he won them?

Evidently the Bryans have never heard of the Swiss penchant for precision -- Federer could not be stumped.

"We were sitting in the locker room and he just reeled them all off in a row," an incredulous Mike Bryan revealed. "It was amazing."

Could the Bryans do the same?

Well, let's just say not a chance.

They bantered back and forth and after a brief hiccup came to the determination that Memphis came first in 2001, followed by Queen's Newport and L.A.

Then Bob jumped in with his best effort to add to the list of their achievements: "I know the 10th was Barcelona because the 11th was the French [2003] and that's when we broke the Gullikson's 10 [titles] brother record."

After losing four finals in a row earlier this season, the brothers were a bit concerned as to where things were at for them. So after a quarterfinal loss at Indian Wells they decided it was time to get a reality check from the most instrumental voice in their lives.

"We went back to our roots, to mom and dad," said Bob, saying they spent the three hour drive from Indian Wells to home in Camarillo, California thinking things over with their dad, Wayne, a well-known coach.

"On the trip back from Indian Wells, dad pumped up with a lot of positive energy. He got us back to the basics."

And the basics have delivered three titles -- Miami, Barcelona and Rome.

-- Sandra Harwitt

PARIS -- Remember a decade ago, when women's tennis had the predictability of death and taxes and men's tennis was a constant toss-up?

Here at Roland Garros, with the retirement of Justine Henin, the women's draw is breathtakingly wide open. The top four seeds all have a legitimate chance to win and it wouldn't be terribly surprising to see one of them knocked off in the quarterfinals or semifinals.

As far as the men are concerned, there is the big three -- and then there's everybody else. There is an approximately zero chance of the French Open champion not being either Federer, Nadal or Djokovic.

On Sunday -- yawn -- there was no new information. Djokovic won in straight sets to advance, inevitably, to the quarterfinals. Nadal demolished fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco 6-1, 6-0, 6-2 and also moved on to the final eight.

As they say in local television, this just in.

Djokovic handled French favorite Paul-Henri Mathieu 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 and Nadal -- who has already run into issues with the rain -- joined him after yet another brief storm halted play.

Their success at Roland Garros has been so consistent, that it's easy to take for granted. Nadal is on the verge of winning all 25 of his matches at Roland Garros -- ponder that for a moment -- and the kid turns 22 on Tuesday. Djokovic sports a 14-3 record here and he just turned 21.

Afterward, Djokovic called it his best match of the tournament. He was asked about a prospective semifinals match with Nadal.

"With all due respect he said," with an impressive command of English, "I don't want to answer because I still need to win a match to get to Nadal."

That match would be Ernests Gulbis, the no-longer stealth Latvian. He took down James Blake in the second round and on Sunday he ended the run of Frenchman Michael Llodra, 6-4, 7-6 (4), 6-3. Gulbis is younger than Djokovic (19) and has only dropped one set so far.

Gulbis and Djokovic know each other quite well too. They practiced together at the Niki Pilic Academy in Munich, Germany for three years when they were younger.

"On and off the court," Djokovic said. "Crazy experiences off the court as well. He made some good results here and there, but he's not consistent. So maybe there's my chance, with the experience and the patience that I have."

All three players are careful to say respectful things about each other, but you just know, under the surface, there is a bristling, competitive vibe.

Federer arrived in Wimbledon in 2007 with sneakers that sported four tiny Swiss flags, representing his four titles. He'll come in with five this year.

Nadal, who is also clothed by Nike, has three nifty little green flames on his sneakers, marking his triumphs at Roland Garros.

And you just know Djokovic, an Adidas guy and the reigning Australian Open champion, will show up in Melbourne next January, with a Serbian flag on his shoes.

Saturday, May 31
Let's play "Jeopardy!'' Category: Roger Federer. Answer: Mario Ancic.

Question: Who was the last man to beat Federer at Wimbledon?

That happened in the first round way back in 2002. The two men's paths have crisscrossed and diverged considerably since then. Federer reigned supreme while Ancic cracked the top 10 before Federer was felled by a jet-skiing injury and a debilitating bout with mononucleosis.

Roger Federer
Roger Federer played his cleanest match of the tournament thus far with 22 winners and just 15 unforced errors.
The 24-year-old Croatian earned a law degree and has fought his way back into the top 50. Meanwhile, it was Federer's turn to show relative vulnerability earlier this year when he contracted mono, disrupting his preparation for the Australian Open and throwing his form off for weeks.

In four meetings since that long-ago encounter at the All England Club, Ancic only managed to take one set off Federer. The trend continued Saturday, as Federer wasn't in jeopardy at any point in their third-round French Open match. Even the groundskeepers applauded after Federer completed a clinical straight-sets performance in a light drizzle.

The inside-out forehand that nailed down set point in the second set was vintage Federer, and he allowed himself a small, genuine smile of pleasure when he was asked about it.

"Yeah, I almost forgot,'' Federer said. "It was a beautiful forehand, especially with the pace and angle I was able to hit it.''

Credit Kamakshi Tandon of Tennis.com for persevering with an interesting question. Here's the exchange:

Q. If we can look ahead just one round, have you …
Roger Federer: I don't.

Q. [Jose] Higueras, what will he do if you and Ginepri play in the quarters? (Note: former top-10 player Higueras is coaching both men.)
Federer: I don't know. He hasn't won it. I haven't won yet. If that problem occurs, I think he's happy.

Friday, May 30
On Friday, we were reminded how fragile the human body can be when it is stretched taut across the minefield that is a Grand Slam.

Both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic won their third-round matches Friday, but their vulnerability was revealed.

After the second set of a 6-1, 6-3, 6-1 third-round victory over Jarkko Nieminen, Nadal called for the ATP trainer. The blisters on his right foot that were a factor in his loss to Juan Carlos Ferrero in Rome had resurfaced. A few thick swaths of white athletic tape wrapped up the problem, and Nadal didn't seem too concerned later.

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic had 10 aces and no double faults versus Wayne Odesnik.
Late in the first set against American Wayne Odesnik, Djokovic went down awkwardly when one of his slides didn't slide. He fell, clutching his left knee, but eventually finished the match. Watching slow-motion replays, it was hard to imagine knee ligaments surviving that sort of stress and torque. Djokovic won 7-5, 6-4, 6-2.

The good news? Both players were efficient: Nadal was done in under two hours (1:58), and Djokovic clocked in at 2 hours, 17 minutes.

Nadal -- does calling him a machine truly do justice to his relentlessness? -- has had the far more difficult path. After waiting around for two wet days, he completed three straight-set matches in three days.

And now he gets Saturday off.

"I'm not that tired," Nadal reported. "I'll be able to recharge the batteries, and then on Sunday, I'll be 100 percent."

Nadal, who is seeking a once-executed four-peat, faces another four-peat of sorts. Fernando Verdasco, who awaits in the fourth round, is the fourth straight left-handed player Nadal -- himself a lefty -- will face.

That has to be some kind of record.

Thursday, May 29
After five gray, soggy days of play at the French Open, it is becoming increasingly clear that this may well represent Roger Federer's best chance to win the title at Roland Garros.

The planets, as they say, are aligning. The draw is opening up like the Red Sea for the world No. 1, while Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are locked in a nasty bottom-half bracket that features all kinds of dangers -- not the least of which is … each other.

It's vaguely parallel to the NBA. No, seriously.

Roger Federer
Roger Federer commited nearly half his unforced errors (20 of 42) in the first set versus Albert Montanes.
Federer's top half of the draw resembles the league's Eastern Conference, where the Boston Celtics (66-16) and Detroit Pistons (59-23) had the league's best records because the competition was so weak. The Western Conference, won by the 57-25 Los Angeles Lakers, was loaded top to bottom. The East's No. 8 playoff seed, Atlanta, won six fewer games than Golden State, which didn't qualify.

Some (who shall remain nameless) predicted a tight second-round match for Federer, but after dropping the first set in nearly an hour -- and smelling the espresso -- he won 16 of the remaining 23 games. In 87 minutes.

"First match was fine," Federer said afterward. "Second one was, too. Hope it's going to get better from here.

"The first sort of pressure rounds are through, and now maybe the focus is more on trying to enjoy as well, playing good tennis instead of trying not to lose your way."

So Federer -- think of him as Kevin Garnett -- is through to the third round, where he'll face Mario Ancic, who would be much more dangerous if this were Wimbledon. In fact, the only seeds left in Federer's quarter of the draw are -- ready? -- No. 9 Stanislas Wawrinka, No. 24 Fernando Gonzalez and No. 27 Igor Andreev.

Scary, huh?

No. 4 seed Nikolay Davydenko is the candidate most likely to emerge from the adjacent quarter. Federer is a tidy 12-0 against the Russian and has lost only four of 32 sets. So, book his passage to the championship final.

Nadal and Djokovic aren't so lucky. They are the best of the Western Conference, but all kinds of Phoenix Suns and New Orleans Hornets-esque floaters are out there: How about Paul-Henri Mathieu, Nicolas Almagro and Fernando Verdasco?

Even if Nadal and Djokovic reach the semifinals, that match will cost a great deal of physical and psychic energy. The winner may come out looking more like the loser. All of this works to Federer's advantage.

Nadal, who at one point won 15 straight games in his straight-sets second-round win over Nicolas Devilder, is aiming for his fourth consecutive title at Roland Garros, which would tie him with Bjorn Borg for the record.

"I know that Roger wants to win the French Open so badly," Borg recently told London's Daily Telegraph. "But he probably has two or three good chances left to win. I think that Roger has a chance to win the French title this year, and I would be very happy if he wins.

"But he would have to play the match of his life if he is going to beat Rafa over five sets in the final."

Nadal now faces pesky Jarkko Nieminen, a solid clay-courter who has made the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. That match is on Friday's schedule, meaning it will be the third best-of-five match for Nadal in three days.

"I feel good," Nadal said. "I'm quite ready to play a full match tomorrow."

Somewhere, Federer -- the Beast of the (not so difficult) East -- will be smiling.

Wednesday, May 28
Their seemingly inevitable collision is still some eight days away, but the drum beat has already begun.

After three soggy, fruitless days of trying, No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal had finally put away Thomaz Bellucci 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 when the Serbian media ambushed him only one question into his postmatch news conference. It was a flawed question.

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal improved his career record at Roland Garros to 22-0 with Wednesday's first-round win.
Did he think No. 3 seed Novak Djokovic -- after reaching three Grand Slam semifinals and a final in 2007 -- was a more serious threat this year?

"More serious?" Nadal said on Wednesday, eyes narrowing. "More than last year? I don't think so.

"Maybe right now [he] has more titles. He's No. 1 in the race. He has more experience. But last year he played semifinals here, semifinal in Wimbledon, final in U.S. Open.

"So difficult to be more serious, no?"

Well, yes.

"I say it always," Nadal continued. "He's a very good player, so he has the potential to do anything."

Like winning the first Grand Slam of the season, the Australian Open, back in late January.

Djokovic, meanwhile, won his second-round match with astonishing ease. He dismantled Spanish qualifier Miguel Angel Lopez Jaen 6-1, 6-1, 6-3 in 80 minutes.

Nadal came up in his third interview question.

"I'm not thinking about semifinals at all in this moment," Djokovic said. "I'm thinking about only winning the tournament. No, I'm joking."

Laughter filled Interview Room No. 1.

"I have to go slowly, you know," he said. "Next opponent, next match. Every match is getting tougher and tougher. Physically, I'm ready for upcoming challenges."

Djokovic faces the winner of Wednesday's late match between Wayne Odesnik of the United States and Hyung-Taik Lee in a third round match Friday. Nadal gets French qualifier Nicolas Devilder in the second round.

And what of that stealth Swiss player no one is talking about? No. 1 seed Roger Federer is scheduled to play Spain's Albert Montanes in a second-round match Thursday.

Tuesday, May 27
Olga Savchuk, a 20-year-old from Ukraine, smashed an overhead for a winner, then pumped her fist late Tuesday at Roland Garros. After dropping the first set to Amelie Mauresmo, 7-5, she was back in the match with a 6-4 advantage in the second set.

Who was happier, Savchuk -- or Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic?

What?

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal played nine minutes Tuesday before play was stopped.
If Mauresmo had closed out Savchuk in two sets, Rafael Nadal would have reached the soggy Court Philippe Chatrier a good 40 minutes earlier. As it was, he waited around all day in the locker room and didn't make his entrance until 7:25 in the evening local time.

And after only nine minutes of play, when the rain descended in earnest, he left the court tied 1-1 in the first set.

The French Tennis Federation, believing that tennis is less than aesthetically pleasing under artificial light, does not go in for night play, so Nadal clearly was going to press for a resolution before night finally fell.

Nadal, wearing a green-accented Nike outfit, seemed glum standing next to 20-year-old Brazilian qualifier Thomaz Bellucci. Even his prematch jumps in the waiting area seemed to lack their usual elevation and Úlan.

Mauresmo's match, which started late and was interrupted by rain, consumed 2 hours and 30 minutes of playing time. No fewer than 20 women's matches had been postponed at 1:20 local time, but not Nadal's. This meant viewers of French television were treated to images of Rafa racing around the locker room, over bags and around corners.

The psychic drain of hanging around all day had to be cheering to Federer and Djokovic, who already have completed their first-round matches. Nadal, after all, is the one who has played the most on clay coming in.

Both Federer and Djokovic have played 13 matches since April 20, when the Monte Carlo tournament began. Nadal has played 16 matches in those six weeks or so. With three players so evenly matched, in the end a few calories of energy here or there could make a difference.

Monday, May 26
The French Open is a 15-day marathon. Conserving energy -- both physical and psychic -- wherever and whenever possible, is crucial. After a damp, dreary Day 2 at Roland Garros, there is an early leader in the Big Three clubhouse.

Advantage, Federer.

While Novak Djokovic struggled in his 2-hour, 29-minute first-round match the day before, dropping a set to Denis Gremelmayr, Roger Federer produced a noninvasive victory over 20-year-old American Sam Querrey. The score was 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 and the match was consummated in a tidy 95 minutes.

Roger Federer
Roger Federer had five more unforced errors than winners versus Sam Querrey but still had no problems winning.
"The first round of the Slams, there's always a lot of pressure," Federer said. "He's an up-and-coming player who's got a good serve and big shots. Not going to win the French Open right away, but on the day you don't know what's going to happen.

"That's why it's sort of a nerve-wracking first set."

Still, Federer was off the court at 2:34 local time and, presumably, comfortably ensconced in his hotel by the time the rain began to come down in earnest. No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal wasn't so lucky. He waited patiently as Venus Williams was extended to three sets on Suzanne Lenglen, only to see the great green tarp rolled out.

Thus, Rafa must wait until Tuesday to play Brazilian qualifier Thomaz Bellucci. Assuming a win, his next opponent will be Nicolas Devilder, who excused Chris Guccione in straight sets. Meanwhile, Federer will have a quiet day of practice, while his second-round opponent emerges from the rain-extended match between Albert Montanes and Kristof Vliegen.

Federer, coming off a three-set loss to Nadal in the Hamburg final, was effective and in form. His best shot was a silly-good running forehand from outside the doubles alley that looped in, barely, for a winner.

Federer, who has won 12 Grand Slam singles titles, was disappointed with his standard of play.

"[It] gives me a few days now again to practice," Federer said. "Hopefully, I can play a bit better the next match."

Sunday, May 25
Novak Djokovic came into this year's French Open with the same seeding he had last year.

But that No. 3 spot in the men's pecking order is about the only thing that hasn't changed for the 21-year-old Serbian player:

• He won the only Grand Slam of the year, the Australian Open, back in January.

Roger Federer
Roger Federer had five more unforced errors than winners versus Sam Querrey but still had no problems winning.
• He has taken home two ATP Masters Series titles, in Indian Wells and Rome.

• He leads all players in the ATP race, meaning if only this year's events counted in the rankings, he'd be No. 1.

"Of course," Djokovic said on Sunday, "there is a lot of expectations. It's a matter of my mental ability to cope with that pressure in the best possible way. So far, I've been doing great."

For the better part of three sets, Djokovic looked something less than great. He was a service break from finding himself down two sets to one to Denis Gremelmayr. The 26-year-old German opened his first match ever at Roland Garros with a technically tight effort in the first set. Djokovic won the second, but after he ran out to a 5-0 lead in the third, Gremelmayr leveled things at 5-all.

"I started serving bad and he started going for the shots," Djokovic said. "All the credit to him. He was being really aggressive."

Djokovic rallied and won the match 4-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-2, but at 2 hours and 29 minutes, it was more of a struggle than expected.

While No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal is the favorite, he may find Djokovic waiting for him in the semifinals. Meanwhile, No. 1 seed Roger Federer's greatest challenge in the top half of the draw would, according to seeding, come from No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko.

Both Nadal and Federer play their first matches Monday.

"It's good to hear that people are talking about more than only two players," Djokovic said. "They're hoping for, you know, some changes in the rankings."

If you are a big fan, you'll be encouraged by Djokovic's report on the conditions. He has beaten Nadal three times -- all on hard courts -- but says this venue is playing at a brisk pace.

"The balls are bouncing, they're smaller and that makes them much, much faster," Djokovic explained. "The conditions are different at Roland Garros than in Hamburg and Rome, because here it's pretty fast."

Djokovic caused a minor stir recently when he asked the media to change the way they pronounce his name. Previously, he said, it was Joke-o-vic. Now, he wants it said this way: Jock-o-vic.

A jock sounds much more formidable than a joke.

Saturday, May 24
It's half-past 10 on a semi-sunny Saturday morning, the day before the world's most important clay-court tournament begins at Roland Garros. There, on anonymous Court 5, the world's greatest clay-court player -- ever? -- is lashing those signature looping forehands.

Up close and personal, the hand-eye coordination is dazzling, the effortless power amazing. And yet, there are all of a dozen people watching Rafael Nadal being watched by his coach and uncle, Toni Nadal. This is because the buzzing crowd is just now streaming through the gates for a tasty day of exhibition tennis.

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal is a combined 12-1 versus Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic on clay.
Soon, they catch the scent and the modest stands begin to fill. If allegory is your thing, Nadal is playing the role of the good guy, dressed all in white -- shirt, shorts, cap, socks, shoes and the thick athletic tape wrapped just under both knees. But while Nadal, less than two weeks before his 22nd birthday, is the favorite, aiming for only the second four-peat in modern French Open history, some would cast him as the villain of sameness.

There is a palpable feeling here on the grounds that, for the first time during his three-years-plus reign, Rafa just might be beatable. World No. 1 Roger Federer and No. 3 Novak Djokovic -- the other two-thirds of Les Trois Mousquetaires , or The Three Musketeers -- have closed the gap on the feisty Spaniard.

Federer is 1-7 versus Nadal on clay, but that single victory at last year's event in Hamburg apparently still resonates.

"Fortunately, I was able to beat him on clay," Federer said Friday. "It was the only final he ever lost on clay. This shows me with the other matches I've played in the French Open that I'm not that far. If I can play against him on a good day for me, I know I can beat him."

Brave talk, but the reality is that Federer lost to Nadal in four of five sets in Monte Carlo and Hamburg after gaining a number of early service breaks.

Although reporters doggedly tried Friday to get Nadal to admit that he was mentally superior to Federer, he wasn't going there.

Absolutely no comeback

PARIS -- Barely a week after abdicating her throne, quadruple French Open champion Justine Henin returned to the scene of some of her most majestic triumphs.

After fulfilling some obligations for her longtime sponsor, adidas, Henin walked into the same press room where, as she recalled, "I shared my greatest moments of happiness on the tour."

What she shared Saturday was a pleasant but firm reinforcement of the finality of her shocking retirement. "I know what I want, and I know that my life is far from the courts," said Henin, who turns 26 on June 1. "I don't need this adrenaline, being in front of thousands of people, to really be happy."

At her request, Henin's name was scrubbed from the rankings. Of the speculation that she'll be back, Henin smiled and said simply, "These people don't know me that well."

Later that afternoon, we ran into one of the most promising young players on the women's tour, Austria's Tamira Paszek. The 17-year-old said she was shocked by the timing of Henin's departure, but not the concept. "Absolutely, yes, I would do that, after playing for 10 years, if I had done everything she's done," Paszek said.

-- Bonnie D. Ford

"That's your opinion," Nadal said. "You can say what you think. I am not one for speak[ing] if I am better or worse."

Federer has won just one tournament this year: a relatively minor clay event in Estoril, Portugal. Nadal has won three: Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Hamburg. Djokovic, too, has won three (the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Rome) and leads the ATP race that is based solely on 2008 results.

With Djokovic in Nadal's bottom half of the draw, it is likely the two will meet in the semifinals.

"I have won three times against him, all three times on hard courts," Djokovic said in his Friday news conference. "This is the surface where I can mostly hurt him, because I get to have a lot of winners and I feel very comfortable there. But on clay it's quite different.

"You have to change a little bit and just try to stay with him all the time, because besides his physical strength, mentally he's very, very strong. He's playing every point like it's match point."

In the past, Nadal has been content to play far behind the baseline on the world's largest clay courts and rely on his superior speed and endurance to wear opponents down. With the improvement shown by Djokovic and Federer, that might not be good enough this year. Nadal may have to be more aggressive.

Perhaps toward that end, Nadal spent a considerable amount of time at the net on Saturday, knifing a series of pretty solid volleys from both sides. You may see more of the same as the tournament progresses.

Les Trois Mousquetaires won't collide, if at all, for another two weeks. On Saturday all three were in action. Nadal played an exhibition against Michael Berrer of Germany, followed by Federer and Djokovic; they played simultaneously, just on different courts. Federer hit with Andy Murray and Djokovic with fellow Serb Janko Tipsarevic.

"It's still a long way to our match if we get to play here," said Djokovic, who will pass Nadal in the ATP rankings if he lasts longer here. "If I play him, I will try to be patient."

Remaining patient through five rounds until the inevitable collision -- that may be the sternest of tests for Les Trois Mousquetaires, and fans of tennis as well.