x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

French Open: Who can dethrone Rafael Nadal, the king of clay?

Spaniard has an astonishing combined 61-6 record on clay against the other top 10 seeds.

Rafael Nadal has a 61-6 record against the rest of the top 10 seeds on clay.
Rafael Nadal has a 61-6 record against the rest of the top 10 seeds on clay.

When Rafael Nadal finally takes mercy on his battered ankles and knees - and opponents, of course - and stows his bludgeoning racket for good, the Stade Roland Garros will surely erect a monument to celebrate their greatest champion, the indomitable "King of Clay".

And what should the epitaph read? Veni, vidi, vici perhaps? "I came, I saw, I conquered".

What could be more apt for a man who has won seven French Open titles in the past eight years? The other 127 players in the men's draw this year have, together, won one. And who can stop him from winning an eighth crown? That is the question.

Novak Djokovic, perhaps? The world No 1, who brought Nadal's eight-year and 46-match winning streak on the clay of Monte Carlo to an end last month.

"It [the win] definitely gave me the confidence boost," said Djokovic. "Winning against Nadal on clay is not something that happens every day, you know. It's a big challenge."

Djokovic also beat Nadal in the 2011 Rome and Madrid finals and is 3-12 against the third seed on clay courts. Those numbers might seem unimpressive, but the Serbian is best placed to stop the Nadal juggernaut at the French Open.

The top seed, however, has not been at his best since defeating Nadal in the Monte Carlo final. He has won just two matches since, losing to Grigor Dimitrov in the opening round at Madrid and Tomas Berdych in the quarter-finals at Rome.

Against Berdych, Djokovic was leading 6-2, 5-2 before he dropped five games on the trot and looked out of sorts in the third set. Given that performance, not many would pick the Serb to beat Nadal should they meet in the semi-finals.

What about Roger Federer then? A 17-time grand slam winner and one the greatest to ever grace the game? Improbable storylines and incredible headlines are not new to the world of sports. And who might not wish a late-career renaissance for the ageing star?

But the demanding clay courts might not really be the ideal setting for a 31 year old to script another fairy tale. The Swiss is 2-13 against Nadal on clay courts and suffered a 6-1, 6-3 drubbing at the hands of the Spaniard in the Italian Open final last Sunday. If he can bounce back from that loss and set up a repeat of that match two weeks from now, he would have done well.

David Ferrer, the fourth seed? He has just one win in 17 matches on clay courts against Nadal, and that win came way back in 2004 when the two Spaniards met each other for the first time. Dare we say more?

Overall, the Spaniard boasts a 331-31 win-loss record on clay. And 22 of those defeats came in the era before Nadal clinched his first French Open crown as a 19 year old. Since that triumph, he has lost only nine matches on clay and won 208. And he has triumphed in 34 of the 43 clay court tournaments he has played in.

From the top 10 seeds at this French Open, only Djokovic, Federer and Ferrer have beaten Nadal on clay. Berdych is 0-5 on the surface against Nadal, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is 0-2 and Marin Cilic is 1-0.

Richard Gasquet (0-6 on clay), Janko Tipsarevic (0-2) and Stanislas Wawrinka (0-4) do not have a victory on any surface against Nadal, let alone clay. Overall, the Spaniard boasts a combined 61-6 record on clay against those other top 10 seeds.

To narrow down those numbers to the French Open, Nadal is 52-1 at the tournament since 2005; Robin Soderling is the only man to beat him at Roland Garros (in 2009) and John Isner is the only one who has managed to stretch him to five sets (in 2011). And he has won 41 of those matches in straight sets.

Given the frightening magnificence of those stats, what hope does the men's draw have of dethroning the king? As John McEnroe, the seven-time grand slam winner, put it: "It's pretty obvious who the favourite is."

The only question, then, is: Can Nadal's knees hold up through the next two weeks? The Spaniard has refused to answer queries about his health and has let his racket do the talking, for now.

"Right now, he seems to be finally, he says, playing the best he's been playing the whole year, which is sort of frightening for the other players," said McEnroe.

And that is not an exaggeration.