Can Rafael Nadal finally be stopped?
The heart of the clay season is here, and the major storylines haven't really changed. Can Rafa hold off Djoker? Can Djoker complete the career Slam? And where does Roger fall into all of this? Our experts answer the latest batch of burning questions.
What are the chances Rafael Nadal won't win the French Open again?
Howard Bryant: There's a very good chance he won't win this year. Players are rarely as bad as they look at their worst or as good as they are at their best. Nadal may be the favorite to win his seventh French Open and 11th major title, but Novak Djokovic is still the best player in the world. He's hungry and motivated for his first French, the career Grand Slam and the "Novak Slam" of winning all four titles consecutively. He still hasn't been beaten in a five-set match since Roger Federer got him on clay at last year's French Open, and before that the U.S. Open in 2010.
Greg Garber: Let's see, here's a very rough calculation: 2 percent. Yes, Rafa has won 45 of 46 matches at Roland Garros, an extraordinary number as he prepares to compete for his record seventh title there. The single loss is well-documented, a lapse against Robin Soderling in the 2009 fourth round. But there were extenuating circumstances (fragile knees and state of mind while his parents were going through a divorce). Nadal already has beaten Novak Djokovic on clay this year at Monte Carlo. I see him doing it again in Paris -- provided Djokovic gets past Roger Federer in the semifinals, something he couldn't do last year.
Joanne Gerstner: The odds are seriously stacked for Rafa to hoist his seventh trophy at Roland Garros. He's come alive in the clay season, which isn't a shock, and his health seems to be holding. The only thing I see standing between Rafa and another French Open title is getting hurt. He has to be 100 percent, especially his ankles, to withstand the sliding on clay.
Kamakshi Tandon: Once, the only thing seriously seen as a threat to Nadal at the French Open was injuries. Last year, we added a second -- Novak Djokovic. And that continues to be about it, with Federer, David Ferrer or a big hitter such as John Isner being very long shots. Nadal didn't play his best during this period last year, looking beatable and actually losing twice to Djokovic. That hasn't been the case so far this clay season with two tournament wins already. So the next two weeks will decide whether a healthy Nadal is a lock or merely a heavy favorite.
Ravi Ubha: I'd make Nadal the favorite at Roland Garros, although not the overwhelming one. Sure he played very well in the Monte Carlo final, but Novak Djokovic wasn't 100 percent mentally. And Nadal knew it. The death of his grandfather hit Djokovic hard, and thus getting to the final was job done. Djokovic is the only player capable of downing Nadal at the French Open, so if Nadal doesn't have to face Nole in Paris -- like last year -- he'll make it seven titles. Thankfully for Nadal, his left knee held up in Monte Carlo and Barcelona.
Matt Wilansky: The comfort of clay and the confidence of already vanquishing Djokovic this year at Monte Carlo will be enough to propel Nadal to French Open title No. 7. All the doldrums he's encountered invariably disappear on the dirt, and not even the world No. 1 appears to have the goods lately to stop another Rafa run. Sure, another anomaly (Robin Sodering, 2009) is always a possibility, but an unlikely one.
What do Nadal's recent exploits mean for Novak Djokovic?
Bryant: With these two guys, very little. Djokovic was distracted by his grandfather's death at Monte Carlo. Nadal was distracted by Djokovic and a creaky left knee. Nadal won then overtook David Ferrer in Barcelona. Djokovic still has the impenetrable defense and the iron will. He rested after Monte Carlo, and although he has had slight lapses in focus in Miami -- second-set tiebreakers in the quarters (Ferrer), semis (Juan Monaco) and final (Andy Murray) after winning the first sets by losing three games combined -- I'll believe Djokovic will lose a five-set match when I see it.
Garber: Last year, when Djokovic was in the midst of his sensational season, Rafa had to see comparisons with his epic 2010 effort. At Wimbledon, after losing to Djokovic in the final, Nadal basically said that Djokovic would eventually come back to the field -- just as Nadal did in 2011. Now, it seems to be happening as Rafa foretold. Nadal beat Djokovic in the Monte Carlo final, but the Serbian star was still feeling the loss of his grandfather. Djokovic, the defending champion in Madrid and Rome -- where he beat Rafa in both finals -- will be quite keen to repeat as champion.
Gerstner: Djokovic has had the confident strut for more than a year on court. It's like he's a boxer coming into the ring, with a cocky smirk. He knows he's going to beat down somebody. Now the cocky boxer in this case, Djokovic, is going to meet up with somebody who has equal confidence, Nadal. Djokovic is going to need everything he has to defeat Nadal on clay. If it happens, it will be an epic match. The master of clay against the hot star.
Tandon: Nadal's tournament wins probably aren't too significant for Djokovic, but the result of their meeting in Monte Carlo could be. Even though Djokovic wasn't fully dug into the match, finally getting a win after seven straight losses against the Serb had to be a boost for Nadal, and he'll go into their next match with more confidence. A meeting between these two in the upcoming Masters events is highly anticipated to see if this was the start of a turnaround after seven straight losses, or just an interruption in Djokovic's recent head-to-head dominance.
Ubha: Nadal made some adjustments, as he promised, when confronting Djokovic in Monte Carlo. He did a better job mixing up his serve -- unafraid to go down the middle -- and struck his backhand better. Unusually for Nadal, he hit a backhand winner down the line with Djokovic not at the net. But Djokovic won't get jittery the next time they battle. He made an abundance of unforced errors and was generally sloppy because of a lack of focus -- which stemmed from the death in his family. He'll be ready in their next tussle. Skipping Belgrade was a good idea.
Wilansky: I don't think Nadal's recent titles, per se, will have a major effect on Djokovic. It's more about Djokovic's state of game at the moment. Granted he won Miami, playing with some serious aplomb, but since the Aussie, he has looked beatable. The air of invincibility has dwindled, albeit slightly, but that's enough for Nadal to overtake him during this clay-court swing. Djokovic always found a way to overcome adversity last year during his historic run, something we have not seen as much this year.
Which player really needs to have good showings in Madrid and Rome to be fully prepared for Roland Garros?
Bryant: John Isner, who struggled in every set in Houston before losing to Juan Monaco in three sets in the final. Before that, Isner flamed out in straights to Florian Mayer on the hard court of Miami. Isner needs to raise his game to be able to win without relying so much on tiebreakers -- simply to conserve energy. His game needs to be tighter and cleaner to make that next leap. Otherwise, as dangerous as he is to the top players, he is just as susceptible to being upset.
Garber: You know Djokovic and Nadal will be ready, so I'm most curious to see how Roger Federer fares in the next two tournaments. He has acknowledged that the Olympics and Wimbledon are his priorities and hasn't played a match in five weeks and should be feeling fresh. Andy Murray's prospects are a bit murky after two ho-hum tournaments on clay. He lost to Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals at Monte Carlo and Milos Raonic at the same stage in Barcelona. And now he has pulled out of Madrid with a back injury.
Gerstner: I'd like to see something from John Isner. His booming serve, and the way he moves it around, is nasty on clay. He's worked a lot on the rest of his game, and a true test will come against the true dirt ballers. Will be interesting to see if Isner is ready to step up and use his power as a real weapon on clay. Or will he fall short, unable to get his groove while sliding? Having a strong run leading into Roland Garros would serve Isner well.
Tandon: All the big four except Nadal need matches, so Djokovic, Federer and Murray will need to have at least one decent week to feel prepared. And of course, Murray is out of Madrid, so he will certainly need a good run in Rome. But most important for Federer, Murray will be getting a win over Nadal or Djokovic, meetings which involve getting to the later rounds. Clay really has a big five, adding David Ferrer to the mix at the top. With few big Grand Slam showings, a Masters win would be the kind of setup he needs for a French Open breakthrough.
Ubha: Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer are all locks to go deep at the French Open, irrespective of what transpires in Madrid and Rome. But the same can't be said of Andy Murray. He isn't as comfortable on clay as the big three, and now he has to contend with a back injury. If he returns in Rome, getting a few wins would give him the boost of confidence he needs. Murray landed in the semis in Monte Carlo and Rome last year, so it was no surprise that the Scot then made it to the final four at Roland Garros for the first time.
Wilansky: There's little doubt the top three guys will go deep in Paris. But clay, more so than other surfaces, is all about finding a rhythm. Federer hasn't played since Miami, and with his focus on the Olympics this season, he's going to need to exhibit a fighting spirit in the next two Masters Series events to avoid trying times in Paris. With a dearth of true clay-court grinders on tour today, Federer should be able to navigate his way deep at Roland Garros, even if he's playing less than stellar, but he'll need to be match tough to unseat the likes of Djokovic and Nadal.
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