(Reuters) - Say it quietly but some chinks
are appearing in the suit of armor Rafael Nadal usually wears on a
claycourt as the Spaniard sets his sights on a ninth French Open title.
By his high standards the 28-year-old Spaniard has suffered a
mediocre season on Europe's red dust courts so far and one or two
players, chiefly Novak Djokovic, will arrive in Paris with genuine
World number one Nadal has lost three matches on his beloved clay in
the build-up to Roland Garros for the first time in a decade while
others he normally sweeps aside on the surface have pushed him
Fellow Spaniard David Ferrer, the man he beat to become the first
man to win a single grand slam eight times last year, surprised him
in Monte Carlo, then he lost to compatriot Nicolas Almagro in
Barcelona and last weekend he was overwhelmed by Djokovic in the
Italian Open final.
Even his 44th career title on clay, achieved in Madrid, earlier this
month, was not totally convincing as he was outplayed for a set in
the final by Kei Nishikori before the Japanese player retired with
That said, the alarm bells will not be ringing yet in the Nadal camp
ahead of the grand slam which begins on Sunday.
Roland Garros remains a fortress for Nadal where he has suffered
only one defeat since winning the title on his debut in 2005. Swede
Robin Soderling is the only man to beat Nadal there and his record
is an astonishing 59-1.
Beating him over five-sets on clay has proved almost impossible and
once he gets into his stride on Paris's relative fast and bouncy
claycourts he appears unstoppable.
Djokovic got to the brink of victory last year in a spellbinding
five-set semi-final lasting four and a half hours after which Nadal
explained that he "enjoyed suffering" the kind of physical
punishment dished out by the Serb.
The scars build up over the years, however, and Nadal now looks more
vulnerable to the kind of attacking onslaught the likes of Djokovic,
Australian Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka, Andy Murray when he is
in the mood and Nishikori can unleash.
Nadal is still the bookmakers' favorite to prolong his reign in
Paris and can be relied upon to raise his level a notch or two over
the next fortnight.
"I feel good physically. I'm feeling better and better physically,
better than a year ago," Nadal, who has appeared untroubled by his
suspect knees this year, said.
"This is the most important thing. Mentally I am still excited about
what I'm doing. It still makes me happy. I still feel fortunate that
I am doing what I'm doing."
Djokovic, who is closing in on Nadal in the ATP rankings, is also
fighting fit after a wrist injury scare that forced him to miss the
Madrid Masters this month.
The Serb was imperious in Rome, coming back from a set down to
dominate Nadal in the final as he beat his great rival for the
fourth time in succession.
"Winning a final of a great tournament with Rafa on clay is
definitely an ultimate challenge," Djokovic, bidding to complete his
career grand slam, said after his Rome triumph.
"I am very happy with my game and I hope I can carry it to the
Roger Federer, who will arrive in Paris with double the amount of
children he had 12 months ago after fathering a second set of twins,
would dearly love to double his French Open title haul.
The 32-year-old Swiss, who briefly interrupted Nadal's domination in
Paris when winning the title in 2009, has produced some stunning
form this year, silencing those who had written him off as a fading
He beat Djokovic in Dubai and Monte Carlo and Murray in Australia
and will believe he can better his quarter-final run last year when
he was beaten by French hope Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Murray, who has slipped to eighth in the rankings, will be hoping
for a kind draw but could find himself up against Djokovic or Nadal
in the quarter-finals.
The Scot, still without a coach after parting with Ivan Lendl,
played his best match of the year when losing narrowly to Nadal in
the Rome quarters.
"I think I've got a good opportunity to do well in Paris," the
27-year-old Wimbledon champion said.
"I missed it last year and that was a very tough one, so I'm looking
forward to going back."
Having won the title in Barcelona Nishikori, 24, looks the best bet
among the young guns to make an impact having begun to consistently
live up to his billing as a potential Asian superstar to rival
China's Li Na on the women's side.
American Michael Chang, who won the French Open as a 17-year-old in
1989, is now working with Nishikori and believes he is close to a
"He has been making good progress and has gained a lot of confidence
and belief in his game and it's starting to show," Chang told the
South China Morning Post.
"Winning a grand slam is certainly a possibility."