After months of hype and excitement, the French Open is finally underway and for the first time in a number of years Rafael Nadal will be able to enjoy this tournament – his tournament – as the underdog, without the weight of expectation.
It seems like every pundit and former tennis star has been questioned recently regarding the contrasting fortunes of Nadal and his on-court nemesis Novak Djokovic.
They are set for a huge quarter-final showdown; it would be much better as the final but Nadal’s lowly and shocking seeding of 7th has put an end to those hopes. There couldn’t be a better storyline set for if they do meet.
In one corner you have Nadal, a 14-time Grand Slam champion and nine-time French Open champion, but he comes into this year’s Paris showpiece with questions over his fitness and even bigger questions over his form. He is clinging on to that ‘King of Clay’ reputation.
On the other side you have Djokovic; the all-conquering Serb. The eight-time Grand Slam champion is still yet to complete his haul, he has never won at Roland Garros, Nadal has always been there to deny him. Now, though, the current world no.1 is in the best form of his life and is pried to finally end his rival’s reign.
So much of the pre-tournament talk has been focused on Djokovic and how he has to beat Nadal this time, this is for him to lose. We haven’t really heard it from the other side.
Don’t kid yourselves, Nadal will be devastated if he loses here for just the second-time in his career, but he must realise that his five-year unbeaten run is the closest it has ever been to ending.
Whatever happens in the next fortnight, the Spaniard needn’t worry about tainting his reputation or losing fans. They will applaud him off the court whatever happens, he is adored.
While in previous years the former world no.1 has always been under pressure to deliver, it is not the case this time and he must learn to enjoy the occasion for a change, and maybe then he can focus on building some momentum.
If he worries about bowing out of the tournament, he may as well call it quits now because he’ll put all of that pressure back on himself and you can guarantee that he won’t even make it to a meeting with Djokovic.
Trying too hard
Watching his matches recently, it seems like Nadal is always straining to find that next level before the French Open begins; he has been looking for a sign that everything will be okay, but he has tried too hard and that sign is now further away than ever.
His camp must be drilling it into him that it’s too late for a miracle cure to his woes, the only thing he can do is trust himself and enjoy being a world-adored sportsman. Lay back and let Djokovic be the one straining to remain at the top level, the Serb has never been in this position before and if he can take it, then just applaud him for doing so.
Rafael Nadal cannot be the King forever, now could be his time to step aside – it has to happen one day – but nobody will remember his downfall in years to come; they’ll only remember his reign.