Rafael Nadal loves the French Open like UKIP love a rant about immigrants. Nine times he’s gone there, eight times it’s ended with a picture of him holding the trophy and cheesily ‘fake-biting’ it.
Oh, the LOLs.
60 times he has done battle on the courts of the 16th arrondissement, 59 times he’s has been the victor pointlessly signing the camera lens at the end. But the King of Clay has rarely gone into his favourite major in such patchy form. Normally he waltzes through the clay court season with blissful ease, but this time around, his preparations have gone about as smoothly as a family dinner in the extended Jay-Z/Knowles household.
Regardless of what happens over the next fortnight, this will go down as his least successful clay court season since his first full foray into the top-tier of tennis back in 2005. He has never previously failed to win at least three tournaments over the course of the clay court season. So at the risk of being overly sensationalist, it’s time to ask ‘is his dominance of the surface coming to an end?’
That question might look pretty silly in a couple of weeks’ time if he’s once again nibbling on his familiar silverware, but here’s three of the biggest threats to Rafa’s ninth French Open title.
1. Rafa’s form
The case for collapse is knee jerk, but not completely unfounded. In 16 matches on dirt this season, he’s lost three. To put that in perspective, in order to find his three previous defeats on the surface, you have to go back a further 56 matches and about three years. While his career win rate on clay is 93%, this season it’s gone down like John Inverdale’s career prospects to around 82%.
In his defence, when you operate at the standards of Rafa on clay, the differences between cruise control and a comparative crisis are fairly minimal. He’s gone from winning 87% of his services games on clay in 2013 to 81% this year – a small difference, but enough to make him slightly more mortal. It’s certainly not bad enough to start eyeing up Greg Rusedski’s spot on the pundit’s sofa. One of his defeats came at the hands of Novak Djokovic – while the other two came against fellow Spanish clay enthusiasts, David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro.
2. Djokovic loves a bit of dirt
Nole has never been a bad clay courter, but with Rafa at the top of the tree, he rarely got a sniff of glory. That’s changed over the last few years as he has developed a game that’s effective on the surface.
In their first nine meetings on clay, Djokovic had a 100% record – Rafa beat him every time. Since 2010 however, the gap has narrowed with their eight matches being split 50-50 down the middle. Overall, the record stands at a formidable 13-4 in Rafa’s favour, but the 4 does tell a tale of how Djokovic has fought back. Interestingly, if he beats the reigning champion in Paris, it’ll be five wins over him on the bounce on all surfaces and more importantly, a career Grand Slam.
3. Stan the man
For years, it looked like Stan Wawrinka was destined to be ‘that Swiss guy who’s good, but not Roger Federer’, but with a grand slam title under his belt, he’s worthy of more respect. Much of his 20s were spent playing the role of the dangerous, but limited opponent. He could bloody the nose of a complacent superior player, but wasn’t a considered a contender in his own right.
As he approaches the apparently significant tennis milestone of 30, the penny has dropped. Starting with his first appearance in a French Open quarter-final 12 months ago, reaching his first ever semi-final in a major at the US Open and ending up with his victory in the Aussie Open, he has been on a run of form that has seen him gatecrash the ‘big four’ jamboree, snuggling in as world number three for most of 2014 to date. His victory in Monte Carlo in April is a promising sign ahead of Paris, he’s defeats to Tommy Haas and the world number 70 less so.