With Federer out of the mix, who will challenge Nadal at the French Open?

Eleven. That is what Rafael Nadal wants: 11 French Open titles. To put the preposterous nature of this chase into context, Rod Laver — often hailed as the greatest player ever before Roger Federer made us suspect otherwise — won a total of 11 Grand Slams. Ditto for Björn Borg. Other “truly great” players, such as Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi, only managed a haul of eight each. John McEnroe, another special talent, has seven.

Till about a month ago, the question on everyone’s minds wasn’t so much who would be able to beat him but, instead, largely revolved around whether anyone would be good enough to take a set off him. That, for the sanity of the tennis-watching public and for the sake of the sport in general, has altered somewhat in the past two weeks. Nadal was ousted with perplexing ease by Dominic Thiem at the Madrid Open earlier this month on a court named in honour of Manolo Santana, the only Spaniard to have won Wimbledon before Nadal emulated him in 2008.

Alexander Zverev
Against Alexander Zverev in Rome this past Sunday, the world No 1 emerged victorious despite turning in a performance that, given his ominous streak on clay in recent times, might have seemed like a defeat. The highlight of the match was a ridiculous no-look overhead by Nadal, but the match stood out more for Zverev’s tenacious shot-making. The world No 3 was obliterated in the first set, struggling to stave off the threat of the Nadal groundstrokes and eventually caving into the sheer intensity of his opponent’s game. But once he found his range — his favourite double-fister backhand being the catalyst — Zverev was Nadal’s worst nightmare, pinging the ball deep and with frightening crispness. Had it not been for a rain break and Zverev’s inexperience — the German is just 21 and has been guilty of imploding in the past — Nadal would have suffered losses in two successive clay-court competitions, a rarity that would have bolstered the chances of the rest of the field. Not to mention what it would have meant for Zverev, who hasn’t always enjoyed great times against the big boys.

If Nadal were to be somehow thwarted in his quest for another Roland-Garros crown, that unlikely challenge will have to come from Thiem or Zverev. Both, much younger than Nadal’s 31 years, hit big from the back of the court and possess the power to hurt the defending champion. Thiem, an excellent mover, has got the better of Nadal on clay on three occasions, a feat previously achieved only by Novak Djokovic and Gaston Gaudio. And Zverev, with a height advantage, is most suited to blunt Nadal’s topspin, a ploy that has seen the Spaniard dominate everyone on tour — Federer included — for such a long time.
Despite these obvious threats, there is little to suggest that Nadal can be beaten at the French Open, which gets underway on Sunday — the Parisian spring air invariably brings out the best in him. Outclassing Nadal in Masters 1000 events, played across three sets instead of the five at Grand Slams, undoubtedly demands tremendous toil, but remains achievable. In majors, this task is made all the more laborious by the duration of the challenge — keeping up with Nadal for more than three sets is like a knackered huntsman trying to tame a tiger in the wild. You can strive all you want, but chances are that the animal will strike when you’re at your most vulnerable. Moreover, Nadal seems to have finally overcome a spate of injuries that, till a few months ago, threatened to derail his season.

Dominic Thiem
The one guy who has managed to prevail in the jungle in the past is Djokovic. The Serb clashed with Nadal in the semi-finals in Rome; the match wasn’t exactly a throwback to more glorious times but offered a tiny glimpse into how delightfully watchable tennis can still be when these two collide. Djokovic is a dark horse of sorts coming into the French Open, an odd thing to say for a player who has 12 Slams to his name and a little less than two years ago looked favourite to overhaul Federer’s record tally of majors. Djokovic has slid alarmingly since his win at Roland-Garros in 2016. In the same time, Federer has further added to his mightily impressive list of trophies, including three Slams.

For a while, Djokovic’s newly acquired Zen-like persona miserably failed to embrace the ferocious warrior inside him. He seemed the kind of guy who was ready to swap T-shirt and shorts for a maroon robe and bury his head in Buddhist scriptures. Thankfully, the mind is more willing and victory-driven now. The body, however, is a pale shadow of the one that once reset the limits of human endurance on a tennis court. Djokovic’s four-match-winning streak in the Eternal City was his best run of results for a while — a quite apt indication of how woebegone his form has been. But confidence permitting, Djokovic can hurt some of the players in form; he’ll meet most of them fairly early, given he is seeded 20.  

Novak Djokovic
Even with Djokovic making a return, the Roland-Garros field remains a depleted one — a worrisome Grand Slam trend of late that refuses to ebb. While Federer is slated to return before Wimbledon, Andy Murray continues to be a long-term absentee. Milos Raonic has confirmed his withdrawal as well, owing to a suspected injury to his right knee. And Juan Martin del Potro, among the more unplayable players around when his heavy artillery is firing right, is doubtful due to a groin injury. In a competitive sense, you would be forgiven for not getting your hopes up.

Yet, in a paradox of sorts, none of the favourites, barring Nadal, has exhibited any kind of prolonged Grand Slam solidity in the past. Zverev and Thiem are wonderful talents, but seldom stick around by the time the second weekend comes calling. Other major seeds, Marin Cilic and Grigor Dimitrov, have failed to elevate their games far too many times in the past to be considered formidable enough to defeat Nadal. That leaves, well, Nadal.

In numerology, 11, along with 22, is one of the two “master numbers”. It is believed to represent instinct, dynamism and charisma. A lot of that, apart from some decent tennis ability, will come in handy for anyone looking to stop Nadal.

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