El Rey del Clay is back in a big way, much to the surprise of naysayers who predicted Rafael Nadal’s best tennis was behind him. The Spanish King of Clay is going for an unprecedented 10th title at the French Open, which begins Sunday and runs through June 11.
No player in history – male or female – has won any Grand Slam event 10 times; and Nadal, who turns 31 on June 3, is in perfect position to be the first.
His 72-2 record on the hallowed red dirt of Roland Garros is mind-boggling, and he has dominated this clay season, taking home trophies at Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid. He is 17-1 this year on his favorite surface, the only blemish a quarterfinal loss to hard-hitting Austrian Dominic Thiem in the quarterfinals of Rome.
Nadal’s chances of winning the French Open are greater than ever this year with Roger Federer skipping the tournament to focus on Wimbledon preparation, defending champion Novak Djokovic trying to rediscover his form with new coach Andre Agassi, Stan Wawrinka struggling, and Andy Murray still apparently getting over a bad case of the flu and shingles.
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“I think Nadal is in a very commanding position right now,” said ESPN analyst Chris Evert. “It's the best we've seen him play in a few years. He's ironed out all the problems he's had with his confidence and his movement. He's got a little more strength to all his shots, not only the serve, but his groundies.
“For the first time in a couple years he really has the confidence and he knows that he can win the French. I think that's really a big, important factor.”
James Blake, working in the Tennis Channel booth the next two weeks, said: “It might just be a waiting game for the rest of the tour until Rafa is done collecting all those French Open titles.”
The women’s field is far more difficult to predict. Serena Williams, the 23-time Grand Slam champion, is pregnant. Maria Sharapova, coming off a drug suspension, was not granted a wild card into the tournament. Victoria Azarenka is still on maternity leave, returning for the grass season. Top-seeded Angelique Kerber has not won a title this year and is 3-3 on clay.
Defending champion Garbine Muguruza reached the semifinal in Rome, but lost in the first round at Stuttgart and Madrid and has been off her game all season. Simona Halep is a possibility, though she has never won a major. Another name to watch is Ukraine’s Elena Svitolina, who won four titles this year, including the Italian Open. Veterans Venus Williams and Svetlana Kuznetsova could win on experience.
“I think on the women's side, any one of 15 possibilities are in the works,” said ESPN’s Pam Shriver. “I thought I'd seen some draws in the last 10 years that were wide open on the women's side, but I've never seen a situation like this.”
Like many tennis observers, Blake is “definitely surprised” to find Nadal the strong favorite at this stage of his career.
“You can put me in that category of people that about a year ago was probably saying, `Okay, I don't see him winning a slam anymore. I see his body starting to deteriorate, thinking he'd get more and more frustrated with that,’’’ Blake said.
“I love having Roger and Rafa back at the top of their games. I'm excited to see Rafa right now playing about as well as he's played in the last five years, back where he's dominated so much at the French Open. I think it's great for the sport. I really can't think of many better ambassadors for their sport than Rafael Nadal. He’s a true gentleman and a philanthropist.”
Other than Nadal’s resurgence, the most intriguing storyline is the pairing of the slumping former No. 1 Djokovic and tennis legend Agassi, making his coaching debut. They have similar playing styles, are both students of the game, and Agassi knows about finding a second gear late in a career. Djokovic was nearly unstoppable a year ago, but has been inconsistent of late.
“Andre played his best tennis from 29 on, Djokovic just turned 30, and today's 30 is like 25 used to be,” said ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert, Agassi’s former coach. “Andre brings an incredible amount of knowledge, wisdom, passion. I think more importantly at the start it's just getting to know each other. Then it will be up to Andre to try to figure out how many weeks he can allocate...I think the potential is there for an exciting partnership.”
2017 French Open
When: Sunday through June 11.
Where: Roland Garros, Paris.
Surface: Red Clay.
Defending champions: Novak Djokovic, Garbine Muguruza.
TV: NBC, Tennis Channel.
12 Players to watch
Rafael Nadal: The resurgent Spaniard will make history with a 10th French Open title.
Novak Djokovic: Can new coach Andre Agassi fix Novak Djokovic’s problems? We’ll find out.
Andy Murray: The Brit hasn’t been the same since a February bout with the flu and shingles.
Stan Wawrinka: The 2015 French Open champion has struggled this season.
Dominic Thiem: Nadal’s only clay loss this year was to the 23-year-old Austrian with the blistering groundstrokes.
Alexander Zverev: The exciting 20-year-old German beat Djokovic in straight sets in the Rome final.
Simona Halep: She has never won a major, but the Romanian has the game to do it.
Garbine Muguruza: The defending champion had two first-round losses on clay in the past month.
Elena Svitolina: Won four titles this season, including the Italian Open on clay.
Karolina Pliskova: World No. 3 could make a breakthrough in a wide-open field.
Svetlana Kuznetsova: She hasn’t won since 2009 but is playing great tennis at age 31.
Venus Williams: Sister Serena is on pregnancy leave, but Venus could pull a surprise.