Commentary

Rafael Nadal leads the big three

Updated: June 2, 2012, 4:09 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

PARIS -- The last nine times they met, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal played for a prestigious title.

And even with the world's best tennis players assembled here for the season's second Grand Slam, it is likely the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked players who will find themselves on opposite sides of the Court Philippe Chatrier in next Sunday's men's final. No. 3 (that would be Roger Federer) has suffered a few hiccups.

In advancing to the fourth round, Federer dropped sets to Adrian Ungur and Nicolas Mahut. Naturally, this caused some mild hysteria in the ranks of the media.

"The difference to playing a match where you're the overwhelming favorite potentially in the early rounds of a Grand Slam is you have to make a press [conference] afterwards," Federer said. "So you're talking about a match that potentially wasn't that close sometimes or they make a bigger deal out of maybe losing a set or getting broken a couple of times, whereas maybe at another tournament you wouldn't talk about that.

[+] EnlargeRafael Nadal
Pascal Guyot/AFP/GettyImagesRafael Nadal has looked utterly dominant through his first three rounds.

"Yeah, different momentum in the press conference. I think sometimes that's the toughest part."

Fear not, Fed fanatics. The last time the Swiss champion dropped sets in back-to-back matches during the first week at Roland Garros was 2009. He won his only French Open that year.

Still, he's easily been the least impressive of the big three. Here are our Week 1 rankings:

1. Rafael Nadal: He's still 25 -- for one more day -- but he's already carved out arguably the greatest legacy ever on clay.

If he wins his seventh title at Roland Garros in eight years, at the age of 26 years, 7 days, there will no longer be an argument. That would break his tie with Bjorn Borg.

So far, Rafa has been the most efficient player in either draw. After his second-round victory over Denis Istomin, in which he lost all of four games in three sets, Rafa said he felt good about his game.

"I can improve things -- that's why I am here to practice every day," he said. "The serve is the first one. For the rest, more or less I have to be happy."

On Saturday, Nadal scorched Eduardo Schwank of Argentina 6-1, 6-3, 6-4. Nadal has now won 48 of his 49 matches at Roland Garros, a statistic that grows more impressive with every round.

Next up: The winner of the match between Milos Raonic and Juan Monaco.

2. Novak Djokovic: There was a tiebreaker with Italian Potito Starace right out of the box and then a grinding 6-0, 6-4, 6-4 victory over Blaz Kavcic in the second round.

But even after waiting most of the day for Stanislas Wawrinka and Gilles Simon to finish their 4-hour, 37-minute match, Djokovic came out firing in the dusk against French qualifier Nicolas Devilder. He lost only five games to advance to a fourth-round match with Andreas Seppi, who recently won the tournament the Djokovic family owns in Belgrade, Serbia.

"He's in best form I think in his life and won a tournament in Belgrade," Djokovic said, smirking. "So he's very famous in Serbia. I think half of Serbia will support Seppi because of winning the trophy.

"No, I'm kidding."

Djokovic, who is seeking his fourth consecutive Grand Slam singles title, is probably under more pressure to win than Nadal -- which is saying something. Nevertheless, he has seemed loose, yet focused. He says he tries not to think about what is at stake.

"I do not want to put too much pressure on myself that I don't need at this moment because I already have enough," he said.

The winner of the Jo-Wilfried Tsonga-Wawrinka match looms in the quarterfinals.

3. Roger Federer: OK, the guy is 30, and his dominance, even over far lesser players, is waning. Federer has lost a whopping 41 games in the first three rounds

This is kind of where we are with the Swiss champion. He's riding an 0-for-8 streak in Slams but, invariably, he's been in the conversation, always reaching at least the quarterfinals.

Federer has another essential bye in the fourth round, when he plays Belgian qualifier David Goffin, who is 21 but looks like a 12-year-old. He lost in qualifying but landed in the main draw and is the first lucky loser to get this far in 34 years.

Naturally, Goffin's idol is … Roger Federer.

"Not the first time it happens," Federer said, drawing laughs from the media. "It's strange; I tell you that. It's weird. It's everything you can imagine. I'm happy to hear it, though.

"It's going to be an unusual match for me, now that I know. So thanks for that."

He didn't sound like a man preparing to leave the tournament any time soon.

If Federer wins, he'll likely get a serious test from the winner between No. 7 seed Tomas Berdych and No. 9 seed Juan Martin del Potro.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.