Rafael Nadal may well be suffering the worst form he’s ever experienced in the build-up to a French Open tournament; but he won’t let that, or Novak Djokovic’s dominance, affect his confidence of landing a record tenth Roland Garros title.
Ever since he denied his great rival yet again in last year’s Paris final, Nadal has suffered a torrid time on and off-court. Post-Wimbledon injury woes pretty much ruled him out of the remainder of the 2014 season, and his start to this year has been less than satisfactory as the lengthy absence seems to have messed with the Spaniard.
Despite winning an ATP 250 ranking point event in Argentina back in February, the 28-year-old struggled in the Australian Open and subsequent ATP Masters events in Indian Wells, Miami and Monte Carlo. The latter of those tournaments provided the most poignant moment as Nadal was comfortably sent packing by Djokovic in the semi-finals.
Their last four encounter in Monte Carlo showed the tennis world that perhaps for the first time in his career, Nadal could be close to being dethroned as the ‘King of Clay’, and that for the first time Djokovic is favourite to end his hoodoo over the former world no.1 on the dirty surface.
While Nadal struggles, Djokovic has jumped a level and looks ominously imperious; he’s become the first man to win the first three Masters event of the year consecutively – as well at the Australian Open.
Their paths may be going in different directions, but all roads will eventually lead to a big showdown at the French Open. Nadal has always denied Djokovic a Career Slam in France, but the nine-time champion faces a struggle to hold back the world no.1 now.
You would think this is the perfect time for Nadal to have something of a bleak outlook on life, but rather the opposite, the world no.1 is up for another challenge and sees parallels to 2011. Four years ago Djokovic was in similar form but failed on the main stage.
“Djokovic was good in 2011, in 2012, 2013 as well as in 2015. Sometimes you win more and some you win less,” he said ahead of the Barcelona Open. “It is difficult to win everything all the time. Djokovic was as good then in 2011 as he is now. He had an impeccable year in 2011 as well as he is having in 2015. I have to congratulate him.
“The rest of the players have to accept that at the moment he is the world number one with all he has achieved this year,” continued Nadal. “This year I have to do things right, get back to a very high level to face him on the court.
“Tennis-wise, I feel a lot better than a few weeks ago. I am going to try to get as far as I can and to play as well as I can, topping the level I showed in Monte Carlo.”
Nadal will be hoping that the Barcelona Open is the perfect stage to build some momentum in the build-up to Paris. An eight-time winner in Catalonia, Nadal is adored in these parts and will probably be relieved to play a tournament out of Djokovic’s shadow; the Serb rarely enters this tournament.
Before getting his hands on a ninth trophy in Barcelona though, Nadal will have a fight to wrestle the crown of current champion Kei Nishikori. The young Japanese star benefitted from the ‘King of Clay’s’ shock quarter-final defeat against compatriot Nicolas Almagro to nip-in and win his first crown here.