by David de Winter – Sports Writer
Before some mickey-mouse football competition in Brazil gets underway, there’s the small matter of a little tennis tournament in Paris to sort out. The French Open is under way on the clay of Roland Garros, but given that the Rafael Nadal has won the past eight of nine tournaments, is there much point of even holding it?
The most likely man to prise the trophy from the King of Clay is World No. 2 Novak Djokovic. The Serbian beat Nadal in their most recent meeting in the final of the Rome Masters last week but he has never beaten the Mallorcan on the red dirt when it matters most. There is a nagging feeling that Djokovic lacks the belief to topple Nadal in the big matches on clay, and Rafa certainly steps it up a gear when it comes to the French Open. Only one defeat in his entire career at Roland Garros is a frightening statistic that must intimidate every opponent he faces.
If Djokovic can’t step up to the plate, then don’t bet against David Ferrer repeating last year’s run to the final. The little Spaniard runs around like the Duracell Bunny and his relentless style of play is ideally suited to long baseline rallies. His results have been none too shabby this season on clay: three semi-final appearances at Rome, Madrid and Monte Carlo (where he beat Nadal).
Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka is another who will be hoping to continue his stellar early-season form. The Swiss No. 1 already has one clay-court title to his name this year (Monte Carlo), beating his compatriot, the little-known Roger Federer in the final, and has proved he can mix it with the big boys at Grand-Slam level. He is a fearsome hitter from the back of the court and will definitely be a man to avoid in the draw.
My dark-horse tip to have a good couple weeks in Paris is the young Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov. Since winning both the Wimbledon and US Open Junior titles in 2008 he hasn’t set the world alight, but he has put in some pretty impressive performances in the past couple of seasons, culminating in a clay-court victory over Lukas Rosol (no, me neither) last month in Bucharest. He also reached the semi-final of the Rome Masters, losing in straight sets to Nadal, so he is clearly no mug on the red stuff. Definitely one to watch.
So what of the British challenge? Pretty bleak. At the time of writing, James Ward is into the final round of qualifying and the only other home interest is Heather Watson. So that leaves Andy Murray once more to fly the flag for our green and pleasant land. The grumpy Scot hasn’t been in sparkling form this season, partly due to injury and partly due to a coaching change, and he finds himself ranked a lowly eighth in the world. Murray doesn’t have the greatest record at Roland Garros with one solitary semi-final appearance in six attempts and I don’t expect him to improve on that this year given his indifferent form this season.
Nadal is not invincible on clay, as Djokovic and Ferrer have both proved in recent months. On the red dirt of Roland Garros however, the Mallorcan reigns supreme and it is going to take a superhuman effort to dislodge him from his throne. An inspired Robin Soderling in 2009 is the only man to beat him at the French and I can’t see that record changing this year. The French aren’t exactly renowned for their love of royalty, but if Nadal wins an unprecedented 9th title, the good citizens of France may just have to crown him King Rafa.