Rafael Nadal has chance at history on French Open clay

It was a private art exhibition on the Left Bank, but it looked more like a rugby scrum in the Stade de France as the pack surrounding Rafael Nadal pushed and pulled for prime position.

Updated: May 28, 2012 11:18 IST
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Paris: It was a private art exhibition on the Left Bank, but it looked more like a rugby scrum in the Stade de France as the pack surrounding Rafael Nadal pushed and pulled for prime position.

From a safe vantage point across the increasingly overheated gallery, Nadal was obscured from view as he worked his way from painting to painting Friday night, but it was easy to follow his progress with the cellphone screens and iPads that the crowd was holding aloft.

Bjorn Borg said recently that he felt today's tennis stars had an edge over his generation in that they were more protected from the public. Borg might have changed his mind watching this scene.

Finally, Nadal emerged, sweatier than after some of his more straightforward tennis matches, to the safer haven of a series of interviews.

"Man, I could use something to drink," he said.

No other male tennis player except Borg has matched Nadal's body of work in Paris, and by the time this French Open ends June 10, Nadal has a fine chance to be in a class of his own.

Linked across the years by topspin and athleticism, Nadal, a flashy left-hander from the Spanish island of Majorca, and Borg, the cool Swede who peaked in the late 1970s, have both won six titles at Roland Garros. But as this year's tournament got under way Sunday without the top four men's seeds in action, Nadal was preparing to begin his assault on a seventh. Even during the tennis reign of Novak Djokovic, Nadal deserves to be the favorite again on red clay.

"Of course Rafa is the favorite, and I'm sure he'll say that he's not, but he is," said Paul Annacone, co-coach of Roger Federer. "Even if he doesn't want to hold onto that, I think he should hold onto it with pride because he's earned it."

Nadal has earned it by compiling a phenomenal 45-1 record at the French Open and a 93 percent winning percentage on clay over all that already makes it safe to call him, not Borg, the greatest clay-court player.

And Nadal has earned it by shifting the momentum and defeating Djokovic twice on clay in straight sets this season, most meaningfully last Monday in the final in Rome, where Djokovic beat Nadal in 2011.

"The first set this year, I can lose that first set, but I won it," Nadal said. "Probably last year, the same set I will lose it."

Order does appear to have been restored in a flurry of red dust and deeper ground strokes, but the French Open is the clay-court tournament that matters most. Djokovic is the world's No. 1 player and will remain so no matter what happens in Paris. He also has perhaps even more historical incentive than Nadal.

If Nadal falters, he will presumably have several more chances to win his seventh French Open. But Djokovic may never have another chance to hold all four Grand Slam singles titles at once.

Although his week-to-week grip has not been as firm of late, Djokovic has still won the last three major tournaments. If he can win the French Open for the first time, Djokovic will be the first man to hold all four since Rod Laver's Grand Slam in 1969.

Djokovic's run would not be a true Grand Slam, with the victories not coming in the same calendar year. But it still would be a grand achievement, all the grander because Nadal and Federer could not manage to close the deal when they had the opportunity.

Federer can blame Nadal. In 2006 and 2007, the two years that Federer arrived in Paris holding three major titles, Nadal beat him in the final, both times in four sets.

Nadal can blame a thigh injury and the fighting spirit of his Spanish compatriot David Ferrer, who stopped his run for a Slam in the quarterfinals of the 2011 Australian Open.

"This is the opportunity that very few tennis players have in their lives," Djokovic said. "I'm aware of that, but I accept it as a challenge. It makes me even more motivated, if can say, in a positive way. It makes me feel good about it, rather than, you know, feeling pressured and worried."

That certainly sounds like the right attitude. But when Djokovic last faced big-match pressure at the French Open, last year, Federer knocked him out in a full-throttle semifinal, which stopped Djokovic's 43-match winning streak and kept him from rising to No. 1 for the first time. Djokovic would not squander his second opportunity, rising to No. 1 after winning Wimbledon a month later.

He remains on top, and he and the second-seeded Nadal can only play here in the final. Federer, though certainly a contender and in Djokovic's half of the draw, is only a bit player for a change in the historical drama. He still has designs, though, on reclaiming the No. 1 ranking this year.

"I'm not taking anything away from anyone else, but I do hope that it is a Novak-Rafa final because I'd love to see those guys spar in that scenario," said Jim Courier, the United States Davis Cup captain and a former French Open champion. "It will be easier for Novak because he won't have the No. 1 ranking riding on it like he did last year with the semis. That put a lot of undue pressure on him.

"He's just more settled now. He's gone through more. He's won three majors since then. He's in a different place mentally."

In Rome, Djokovic did not appear to be in a better place mentally; he grumbled and even smashed a racket. Although he has won the two most prestigious titles so far this year - the Australian Open and the Masters 1000 event in Miami - he has not been in the same kind of extended zone as in the first half of 2011.

In Rome, with Nadal producing more consistent depth, Djokovic struggled to create the sharp angles with his ground strokes that had allowed him to open up the court as he compiled seven straight wins against Nadal.

Asked if he had ever lost hope during that streak, Nadal looked genuinely perplexed, meaning that his left eyebrow arched even higher than usual. "No, why?" he answered, explaining that he had come close to beating Djokovic in Indian Wells, Calif., and Miami last year.

He conceded that the loss in the Wimbledon final last year was the hardest to take because he had felt he was in much improved form going into the match. But Nadal clearly drew renewed energy from this year's Australian Open final, in which Djokovic needed nearly six hours to hold him off and Nadal looked much more active than passive.

Now they are back on Nadal's territory, even if it has sometimes been hostile territory.

In 2009, when Robin Soderling dealt him his only defeat at Roland Garros, the crowd was audibly against him. Last year, Yannick Noah, the last Frenchman to win the title here, wrote an article in the French newspaper Le Monde alleging that top Spanish athletes were using "a magic potion." That prompted vigorous denials and a rebuttal from Nadal.

This year, "Les Guignols de l'Info," a satirical French television show, has featured a puppet of Nadal wielding a syringe, urinating into the gas tank of a car and, just last week, turning into a racket-wielding version of King Kong atop a skyscraper after using another potion.

Spanish authorities have threatened legal action against the program in the past, and Nadal, who has never been sanctioned for a positive drug test, has repeatedly declared his innocence and his disappointment.

"I really believe that we cannot dope in tennis without being caught," Nadal told Tennis magazine in France in an interview published this month. "I'm the first one to like jokes, but this kind of joke goes too far in that it helps contribute to wrong opinions among people who are far removed from all this, who don't know the system. The 'Guignols' have crossed the line. That's what makes me sad."

But Nadal, surrounded by art and fans on the Left Bank on Friday, said he was convinced that the French public remained in his corner.

"I don't see that problem with the French people," he said, "because when I go on the street, and I walk around, the people show me the love; I feel that all the time."

For him, 2009 remains a painful memory but an exception.

"I felt all the stadium against me," he said. "So that's something that is difficult to understand when it is a place that I love a lot, and I love the French people. I love Paris probably more than any other city in the world."

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