Commentary

Baseline Buzz: Who wins?

With Rafael Nadal struggling, Serbian star is now bookmakers' favorite in Paris

Updated: May 26, 2014, 5:22 PM ET
By Greg Garber and Matt Wilansky | ESPN.com

PARIS -- The weather was disturbingly unsettled at Roland Garros on Monday. Rain pushed back the start about an hour, and from leaden skies it continued to sprinkle across the grounds as the early matches were being played.

For the first time in years, the men's draw appears to be similarly unpredictable. No. 1-ranked Rafael Nadal has won 59 of his 60 matches here -- and an unprecedented eight titles in nine years -- but he's been something less than the celebrated King of Clay in the weeks leading to this French Open.

In some minds, including those of the people who make a living by understanding these things (the bookmakers), No. 2 Novak Djokovic technically is the favorite. The biggest piece of evidence they cite is the recent final in Rome, when Djokovic hammered Nadal right off the court.

Djokovic stayed hot in his first-round match here, dusting Joao Sousa of Portugal 6-1, 6-2, 6-4. And Nadal, for his part, responded with a powerful 6-0, 6-3, 6-0 win against Robby Ginepri after the dusk and storm clouds disappeared from Roland Garros.

As the fortnight unfurls, this is the most compelling storyline: Can Djokovic win his first title here and complete his career Grand Slam? Or will Nadal heroically revert to the clay champion he was and put a dreamy ninth title on the board? ESPN.com's two attendees in Paris, tennis editor Matt Wilansky and senior writer Greg Garber, humbly offered their observations on the subject that is sure to dominate as the tournament progresses for the inaugural installation of Baseline Buzz.

Garber: Full disclosure out of the box. I picked Djokovic to beat Nadal in the US Open final last year and was, as it turned out, sadly mistaken. I chose him again for our Experts' Picks feature to win here after watching the Rome final, and after seeing the same result with my own eyes in the final at Miami. Neither match was close; Djokovic was dominant, and Rafa looked, well, baffled. I felt good about the pick ... until I actually got to Paris. Watching Rafa practice Saturday on Court 5 (he was out there for more than two hours), I began to wonder whether I had been hasty in disrespecting The King. He was lashing heavy, heavy forehands and pounding serves and looking extremely comfortable, like an otter splashing around in a stream. After Rafa was banished to Suzanne Lenglen for his first match against Robby Ginepri, I'm thinking he'll roll through the draw with an even bigger chip on his shoulder. The one unbreakable, cardinal rule of tennis: Never bet against Nadal at the French Open -- and that's just what I did. Genius.

Wilansky: I understand your thinking in picking Djokovic. Tennis, like any other sport, is a fluid business. Nadal's history here speaks for itself, but in my eyes, the reason I, too, picked Djokovic wasn't so much because of Nadal's recent losses as it was about his attitude. I watched him closely throughout this year's clay-court Masters season, and there was just a lot of dour in his demeanor. His trademark scowl was on full display. To the naked eye, there appeared to be something more than a tennis problem, or in the case of Rome, a Djokovic problem. But keep in mind, Djokovic upended his longtime rival last year in Monte Carlo before succumbing to Nadal in a spectacular semifinal match at Roland Garros. And Nadal, who has always been transparent about the state of his game, seemed to be in better spirits before the French began. "The dynamic is positive, is true, so that's always important for the confidence," he said. "I felt that in Rome I was able to play with not that nerves, that anxiety that I played in the first two tournaments, and some moments in Madrid, too."

Garber: Funny you mention this, because on Sunday, the great Roger Federer concurred with Rafa's pronouncement. "He's played his matches he needs to play. He's even won one of the, one of the Masters 1000 at home in Madrid for him. So I think he probably is where he wants to be, in my opinion." And that opinion carries some weight. Sure, Federer was tweaking the media (and probably Djokovic) for overreacting to Djokovic's decision to pass on Madrid and rest a tender right wrist. Fair enough. Rafa's track record -- we emphasize the word "record" -- at Roland Garros is so good that perhaps we should be willing to suspend our disbelief. Sure, Nadal has lost three clay-court matches this year. Horrors. But he's 60-for-61 in matches here and, get this, Rafa has won 84 of the 85 best-of-five matches he's played on clay. Wait, is it too late to change that pick?

Wilansky: Sadly, the Experts' Picks disclaimer specifically states that "any picks may not be altered after 10:59 a.m. local time on the first day of the tournament unless foul conditions push the start time back of said event -- or if we totally regret choosing Djokovic." But even with our mild reluctance in picking him, I think we're both of the mindset that the disparity in his form compared to Nadal's is greater than it has been ever since the Serb began his tear three years ago. And Djokovic has a little extra motivation: If he wins the title or if they are both eliminated in the same round, Djokovic becomes the new No. 1. And mind you, the ramifications were exactly the same in 2011 when he played Nadal in the Wimbledon final. A win would secure not only the title but the top ranking, and Djoker hammered his Mallorcan opposition in relatively easy fashion.

Garber: History is one thing, but it does not guarantee -- as the hedge-fund folks like to say -- future success. One thing we might be missing here is Djokovic's determination. He said before the tournament that winning Roland Garros was his main priority for the entire season. He played an emphatic match against Sousa and was so relaxed, I swear he threw the kid a bone and a few games in the final sat. Going forward, it will be interesting to see if Nadal, who played the three longest matches in Rome in his first three, can close his matches as quickly.

Wilansky: I'm with you. In 61 career French Open matches, Nadal has played only two, count them, two, five-set matches. And although he's won both, I am curious to see how he reacts if he has to play, say, consecutive five-setters or, say, two in three matches. I really try avoiding this word at all costs, but Nadal has rarely faced "adversity" here, but the evidence suggests he will this season. But perhaps there's a solution to the world No. 1's woes. Somehow I've managed to find a few spare moment to start reading Djokovic's book, "Serve to Win," which is essentially a blueprint for healthier eating. And it made me think, for all the misery Rafa has endured, perhaps his tonic is a lot simpler than we think: Just cut out the gluten, kid.

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.

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