With mere days to go before the start of the second Grand Slam of the year the bookies’ favourite is, surprise surprise, Rafael Nadal, eight-time winner of the French Open. But as he goes for his fifth straight win at Roland Garros, questions are being asked about whether this might finally be the year that the Spaniard surrenders his crown.
If the French had taken place a month ago, Nadal would have been the overwhelming favourite. With Roger Federer waiting for his wife to give birth and Novak Djokovic struggling, the familiar road to the Roland Garros history books looked very smooth indeed. But the birth of his second set of twins on May 6th means that the old Swiss master is back in business whilst Djokovic seems to have fully recovered from his injury after an iffy few weeks.
To make matters worse for the Spanish favourite, he seems to be suffering from a severe lack of form this year which could mean this clay-court competition is the most open yet. Let’s take a look at the stats:
Nadal achieved a quite incredible 75-7 overall singles record last season (including 10 titles) – that’s a whopping 91.5% win rate in 2013. His fourth loss last year was in October, and this stat grows in significance when one considers that he’s already lost four times this year, with a 23-4 record so far. It’s obvious to all and sundry that Nadal isn’t quite up to his vintage standard. Not yet at least.
His recent stumbles in Miami and Monte Carlo have been untimely in terms of readying Rafa before the start of the French Open. Beaten in straight sets in both tournaments certainly suggests that the champion might be showing signs of weakness ahead of the Grand Slam. Only time will tell, but it will certainly be intriguing to see if the King of Clay can hold onto the crown for a fifth straight win at Roland Garros.
As for another big competitor, it seems obvious that Andy Murray’s time without a coach is doing him no favours at all. It’s no secret that the Scot is hunting for a new coach following his split from Ivan Lendl in March, but most expected Murray to have employed a replacement by now. His partnership with Lendl famously saw Murray bring home a US Open title, Wimbledon Championship and even an Olympic Gold Medal, and the sooner he employs someone of similar calibre to Lendl the better.
With the French Open looming, Murray has hinted that it’s “not impossible” that he might appoint a new coach before the competition starts on the 25th, but it seems highly unlikely that a contract will be drawn up in the next four days.
Undergoing surgery at the end of last season has clearly set the British number one back quite a few steps and the lack of coach is only exacerbating matters. Murray’s claims that he’s “getting there” are encouraging, but it seems unlikely that Murray can threaten the big boys whilst in this transitional phase.
Nevertheless, he played well at the Foro Italico last Friday, shocking Nadal with a 6-1 opening set but crucially still lost the second and third to the world number one. He claimed the match hasn’t changed his high level of confidence – but saying it and feeling it are two different things. Murray may well be showing some of the old power and intensity in his game but whether he’ll be able to stretch that over five sets in France remains to be seen.
While the men’s power struggle for the Coupe des Mousquetaires goes on, the women will compete to raise the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. Serena Williams is this year’s favourite and will be playing off the back of her Rome Masters win last week. That being said, the top-ranked American chose not to compete on clay this season until the beginning of May in Madrid, where she ended up pulling out with a thigh injury.
Maria Sharapova is likely to be one of Serena’s main rivals for the title, having clinched titles on clay in Stuttgart and Madrid already this year. Since 2004 the Russian world number seven has only failed to reach the final eight of the Parisian competition once and she’s likely to be as formidable as ever on the clay of Paris.
Other ladies in with a shot include (of course) Li Na, Simona Halep, Azarenka and, my dark horse for the title, Sara Errani. The Italian is ranked world number ten and recently beat Li Na on her way to the final in Rome. Recent form makes her one to watch but her potential success in the doubles tournament could do damage to her wage of warfare on the singles.
I don’t know what’s going to happen but we’ve certainly got an addictive and exciting competition in store which will undoubtedly include those unexpected twists and turns that can never be ruled out in the game of tennis. The 2014 French Open at Roland Garros starts on May 25th and ends on with the men’s championship on June 8th.
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