The French Open begins Sunday with a highly unusual story line.
Nine-time champion Rafael Nadal, the King of Clay, the Spaniard who has won 66 of his past 67 matches on Roland Garros’ famed red dirt, enters the tournament as an underdog.
No, that is not a typo. Nadal, Roland Garros and underdog in the same sentence. Hard to imagine, but it’s true.
His ranking has dropped to No. 7 in the world. He has won just one title since the last French Open. And he arrived in Paris last week in the worst pre-French form of his career, with no titles in the lead-up clay events. Always honest and humble, he admitted he is feeling insecure and vulnerable.
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“It’s [obvious] that I had more up and downs [this season],” Nadal said. “It’s not terrible, but if we compare with the other years, obviously it looks bad, no? That’s always going to happen when you achieve a lot in the past. … When you lose more than other years it’s obvious the confidence is a little bit less, but I’m having less bad days now than the first few months [of the year].”
ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe was blunt when asked about Nadal’s recent struggles. Although he considers Nadal a “second favorite” behind top-ranked Novak Djokovic, who is 14-1 against top 10 players this year, he said a poor performance could be the beginning of the end for Nadal.
“I think this could be a real crossroads tournament for Nadal,” McEnroe said. “I don't see him sticking around if he drops out of the top 10, if he loses relatively early, which is actually possible. … I think it would be a huge psychological blow to him. In addition to the fact that just the way he plays, there’s so much effort expended. … Obviously, his heart and his commitment will be there. I think it’s his body. If his body and his mind start to break down, and I think they sort of go hand-in-hand, I think that would be his downfall. … I think he could be done pretty quickly.”
Martina Navratilova, working for Tennis Channel, was not as pessimistic.
“It could just be that he’s having a bad six months,” Navratilova said. “We don’t know if he’s 100 percent healthy because only he knows that and his team. People tend to write people off too soon, in my opinion. Roger Federer said himself, until Rafa loses at the French he still has to be the favorite. You can’t just throw out the last 10 years based on the last few months.
“But certainly, he’s feeling and looking most vulnerable. And that gives the other guys confidence when they play him. Before it was like, ‘I don’t want to get embarrassed playing Rafa,’ and now they think they have a chance.”
McEnroe, Navratilova and Evert all made mention of Nadal’s diminished power.
“I think he looks leaner and maybe isn't as powerful as he used to be,” Evert said. “He just doesn’t look as imposing as he used to. Every muscle in his body was pumped up. He used that for explosion. He doesn’t have that explosion anymore. I don’t know. The edge is off of his game.”
Said Navratilova: “He seems to me a little bit less physically imposing, I don’t know if it’s just my imagination. Just doesn’t seem to be as muscular as he was five or six years ago. But he’s still in the prime of his physical life, maybe he trains differently because of his injuries.”
On the women’s side, the world’s two best players — No. 1 Serena Williams and No. 2 Maria Sharapova — could meet in the final.
Navratilova believes defending-champion Sharapova has an excellent chance to win, especially if she faces someone other than Williams in the final. Williams is 17-2 against Sharapova, including 15 in a row over the past 10 years.
“With Maria, it always comes with a caveat — what happens if she plays Serena?” Navratilova said. “She hasn’t beaten her in 10 years. But Maria’s been the best clay-court player the last three years, except she hadn’t been able to beat Serena. But she’s beaten everybody else, so she has to be one of the favorites.
“Serena now is kind of an unknown because of the run-up she’s had, not really finishing tournaments, so it’s hard to tell. But Serena always comes out playing her best tennis in the Slams. Also, Serena plays her best against Maria. She totally rises to the occasion, where she might be a little listless against other opponents, or maybe give them a set. With Maria, she doesn’t give away points, never mind sets. She’s always fired up.”
When: Sunday through June7.
Where: Roland Garros, Paris.
TV: ESPN2 and Tennis Channel.
Defending champions: Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova.
Players to watch
Novak Djokovic: The top-ranked Serb is riding a 22-match win streak, 10-0 on clay, and 14-1 against top-10 players this season.
Rafael Nadal: The King of Clay could relinquish his crown after dropping to No. 7 and going 17-5 on clay this year, poor by his standards.
Roger Federer: Never count out the Swiss maestro, the only top-10 player to beat Djokovic this year, although it was on fast courts in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Andy Murray: The Scot won his first clay-court title in Munich, Germany, and beat Nadal in the Madrid final.
Stan Wawrinka: Anyone who beats Nadal in straight sets in the Italian Open quarterfinals is worth watching.
Serena Williams: The 33-year-old world No. 1 is seeking Grand Slam No. 20 and is 25-1 this season.
Maria Sharapova: Defending her title will be a lot easier if she doesn’t play Williams, against whom she is 2-17.
Petra Kvitova: Williams’ only loss in 2015 was to Kvitova in the Madrid semifinals, on clay.
Simona Halep: Last year’s runner-up is No. 3 and has a 29-6 record this season.
Carla Suarez-Navarro: She reached the quarters last year and took Sharapova to three sets in the Rome final this month.