Paris:Rafael Nadal's ruthless pursuit of an historic fourth straight French Open title is likely to deliver another, possibly fatal blow to Roger Federer's lingering dream of an elusive Roland Garros crown.
The Spaniard boasts a perfect record of three titles and 21 wins in 21 matches since his debut in Paris in 2005 and another victory on June 8 will take him alongside Bjorn Borg (1978-1981) as the only man to win four in a row.
The left-handed Mallorcan has beaten Federer in the last two French Open finals as the world number one's hopes of becoming just the sixth man to win all four Grand Slam titles have come up heartbreakingly short.
Nadal, 21, has also won eight of the duo's nine meetings on clay including the Monte Carlo and Hamburg Masters tournaments this season and since April 2005, the Spaniard has racked up 108 wins in 110 claycourt matches.
Federer has got used to being confronted with such overwhelming statistics.
But 2008 has seen the Swiss, with 12 Grand Slam titles to his name, endure one of his worst years on the tour with just one trophy to show for five months frustrating graft.
There is also another worry in the colourful shape of Serbia's Novak Djokovic, the 20-year-old who took his Australian Open title and showed off his claycourt credentials with victory at the Rome Masters.
Little wonder that the popular Federer is hoping that Nadal, who suffered blisters in Rome and needed treatment for a leg injury in Hamburg, might suffer a physical collapse.
"He is perhaps struggling a bit more due to the stress with the levels of the last few weeks. I am completely fine and I will be ready for the French Open," said Federer after seeing his nemesis relieve him of his Hamburg title in a defeat which ended a 41-match winning streak on German soil.
Nadal, however, has shrugged off any fears over his fitness.
"I was a little bit tired," explained the world number two whose battling style saw him come back from 5-1 down in the first set in Hamburg after also winning a three-set, three-hour semi-final over Djokovic the previous day.
"But later everything changed. It's important to beat the number one (Federer) and the best this year (Djokovic). With this result, I'm already in the Masters Cup. I continue to be the number two but closer to the number one."
Djokovic is breathing down both men's necks.
Beaten by Nadal in the semi-finals here in 2007 and quarter-finals in 2006, the Serbian world number three, who celebrates his 21st birthday on Thursday, is the most successful player on tour this year.
He won his first Grand Slam title in Melbourne dropping just one set in seven rounds and also clinched the Indian Wells Masters before his win in Rome.
"I am getting closer to Nadal on clay," said Djovokic after losing 7-5, 2-6, 6-2 to the Spaniard in Hamburg.
"The semi-final was one of the best matches I have played, probably the best match I have ever played on clay. I am really pleased with my form ahead of the French Open, my fitness is good, I feel fresh and that bodes well for Roland Garros," Djovokic said.
Djokovic is also closing in on Nadal's world number two position and the Spaniard believes it's just a matter of time before the Serbian is on top of the world.
"He has improved incredibly and is getting better," said Nadal. "He's going to be world number one within a few years."
Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are head and shoulders above the rest of the men's field; world number four Nikolay Davydenko is almost 2000 points adrift of the Serbian in the world rankings.
As a result, the top trio are certain to dominate court time and column inches, but there won't be a dry eye in the house when former triple champion Gustavo Kuerten plays and, probably, loses in the first round.
The Brazilian, champion in 1997, 2000 and 2001, has featured in just nine tournaments in the last three years after failing to recover from a crippling hip injury.
This year's emotional farewell will be the 31-year-old's last appearance of his 13-year career.