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Sunday, May 26, 2013
Nadal, Djoker on collision course

By Kamakshi Tandon
ESPN.com

It's been seven years since the French Open became a 15-day event, and Sunday still feels like a prologue. And so it was on Day 1, a relatively quiet opening of play that saw both Roger Federer and Serena Williams roll through their first-round matches.

Monday is when things really kick off on the men's side, leading up to the big showdown anticipated in 12 days' time. Wait -- 12 days? Isn't the tournament 15 days? That's right -- this year's battle royale between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, if it comes, will be in the semifinals.

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal has been mighty stellar since coming back from a bum knee.
Djokovic is No. 1, but with Nadal ranked No. 4 after last year's injury absence (and seeded No. 3 with Murray's withdrawal), the draw ended up pitting the two title favorites against each other in the final four, not the final.

Neither can have been happy to see that, but in public, their reaction was completely predictable -- refusing to look past the first round.

Djokovic, knowing what was coming, went as far as asking for no questions on anything other than his first match in his pre-tournament press conference. Nadal was asked about their possible meeting barely a minute or two after his press conference began. "But is not in the first round, no?" Nadal said, drawing laughter, before adding, "If he's not 1 and 2 of the world, that can happen and happened.

"But the tournament starts from the first round, and I'm sure that both of us, we know that we have a hard way before that."

It's true that neither has a particularly easy path, particularly Djokovic, who has looked vulnerable lately. But it is their opponents who have the uphill battle. Djokovic begins against last year's fourth-round surprise, David Goffin, but he has done nothing lately. In the third round, Djokovic could meet Grigor Dimitrov, who defeated the Serb in Madrid, but this will be best-of-five sets, and Dimitrov's fitness is still a question mark.

Nadal starts against Daniel Brands, an underrated player but surely no match for the seven-time champion. There could be a psychologically fascinating third-round match against Lukas Rosol, the player who beat Nadal at Wimbledon, but Rosol must first get there. Even then, a rematch against a healthy Nadal on clay makes one fear for Rosol more than anything. After that is a mix of interesting names like Rome breakouts Benoit Paire and Jerzy Janowicz, on-fire Stanislas Wawrinka and perennial French hope Richard Gasquet. But their reputations for mental fragility (and injury, in Wawrinka's case) mean Nadal will remain favored to get through.

The biggest factor, for both Djokovic and Nadal, will be their own form. Djokovic can draw on his win in Monte Carlo, the lead-up tournament with conditions most similar to Roland Garros, and especially his win over Nadal in the final. But with two three-set letdown defeats since, Djokovic needs to regain his footing in the early rounds.

Nadal, meanwhile, has wiped away practically every question since returning in February from his knee-injury absence. Despite the rusty start, he showed he did "not forget how to play tennis," as he phrased it. After three tournaments on clay, he went to Indian Wells and won despite struggling to adjust to the hard courts, which showed he had not forgotten how to compete, either. In Barcelona and Madrid, he showed he could handle the pressure and again concentrate as effectively as ever, especially in a tight three-set battle against David Ferrer in Madrid. In Rome, Nadal answered questions about his fitness, winning two three-set matches and coming through the long European clay stretch unscathed despite not being able to train as much.

His tennis has also continued to improve, getting back to the heights of last year. "I went without playing tennis for eight months, so in front of the TV or in the gym I cannot work on my tennis," he said. "Since I came back, I played, I competed, and is true that during the competition you are always trying to adjust a few things.

"In Rome and in Madrid, I think I played very aggressive. I played inside the court and having the control of the point from inside."

The only question that remains is about the knee, which he admits continues to bother him even though he is reluctant to talk about it. The cool conditions in Paris are also not in his favor, particularly if he plays another big hitter.

But if Nadal keeps playing the way he has been playing, it could be a very short 12 days.