Number one seed and eight-time champion Rafael Nadal faces one of his toughest challenges ever on the eve of the 2014 French Open. In preparation for Roland Garros, Nadal is not as sharp as usual. For the first time since 2004, he only shows one clay court tournament win to his credit leading up to the French Open. Nadal even lost in the quarterfinals in the Barcelona Open and Monte Carlo Masters, two clay court French warm up events he typically owns. Close to 28, the Spaniard is reaching the age when once dominant players begin to decline. Time eventually catches up to everyone. Further, the King of Clay has more tough miles on his legs than most. Tennis fans are curious whether the defending champ can hold off Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka and the others for another French title.
Nadal’s quest for title number nine begins with first round opponent Robby Ginepri, currently ranked at 275. Assuming the King of Clay gets through what he hopes is a tune up, his second round test is likely Dominic Thiem. Having beaten Wawrinka in Madrid, Thiem is playing well and should give the 2013 champion a true test. Third and fourth round opponents are likely Vasek Pospisil and Nicholas Almagro, ranked at 30 and 21 respectively. Fellow Spaniard Almagro is a true threat, given he beat Nadal in Barcelona. If he can survive an Almagro onslaught, quarterfinal opponents will likely be Grigor Dimitrov or fifth ranked David Ferrer. For the past several years, reaching at least the semifinals was assumed, but given the current state of Nadal’s game, he could stumble at any point after the first round.
Facing the defending champ in a possible semifinal matchup will likely be either Andy Murray or Wawrinka. Murray came close to beating Nadal in Rome recently and could pose a major challenge to Rafael Nadal if he faces the UK favorite in a French Open semifinal match. Wawrinka already beat the defending French champ in the Australian Open Finals. Wawrinka has not been sharp in recent clay court matches, but is clearly comfortable now on a major stage.
If Nadal reaches the Finals and faces Djokovic, he will face his supreme challenge. Djokovic is hungry to complete his career Grand Slam by winning the French Open and has apparently recovered from a recent wrist injury. Djokovic responds well to the champ’s difficult forehand and pounces on the King of Clay’s second serve. Nadal will need to rely on his conditioning and mental toughness to try to pound out a win against the Serb in a potential Finals match.
Nadal is unsurpassed regarding mental toughness and determination during a match. Those attributes will be tested as he reaches the French Open without showing top form in his tune ups. The mental toughness will not matter as much if Nadal’s form does not improve through the Roland Garros gauntlet of matches. Nadal says he is confident and determined. Legions of fans are curious whether the confidence and determination to win his ninth French Open title will be enough to beat the challenges Rafael Nadal will face at Roland Garros.
Commentary by William Costolo