King of Clay: Rafael Nadal Expected to Win 11th French Open Title

King of Clay: Rafael Nadal Expected to Win Record 11th French Open Title

Rafael Nadal is playing some of his best tennis at the right time, which has made him the heavy favorite to claim another title at the upcoming French Open.

Updated: May 22, 2018 • 11:15 AM ET

Rafael Nadal continues his domination on clay surfaces.

On Sunday, Rafael Nadal outwitted and outplayed the best up-and-comer men’s tennis has to offer, Alexander Zverev, to win his 8th title in Rome. Nadal’s win — 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 — wasn’t routine, as the German had the King of Clay on the ropes when, in what could be called divine intervention, rain poured down on the red clay. Play stopped, but when the match resumed, Nadal had recouped his muddled mind and game, running off five games to win the Italian Open.


“Next time, I have to find a way to come out better after the rain and play better tennis,” Zverev said after the match via ASAP Sports. “He came out way faster and played much more aggressive than I did.”


Nadal’s title in Rome helped him recapture the No. 1 world ranking and capped off yet another romp through the European red clay court season that he’s dominated for more than a decade. Before Rome, Nadal won his 11th title in Monte Carlo and 11th in Barcelona. The only event he didn’t capture was Madrid, where Dominic Thiem upset the Spaniard in the quarterfinals and ended Nadal’s 50-set winning streak, the most for any player since John McEnroe in 1986 on carpet. 


With momentum fueling Nadal, he’s poised once again to storm Paris and win his 11th Roland Garros next month. This isn’t mere speculation, even though the draw won’t be available until Thursday. In addition to his 104-2 record at the French, several players who could significantly challenge him won’t be there: Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Milos Raonic and possibly Juan Martin del Potro.


Federer, for the second consecutive year, has foregone clay tournaments due to his age (36) and the wear-and-tear on his body. He’s scheduled to return to the tour in Stuttgart, a grass-court event in June. 


Murray, who continues to recover from hip surgery, won’t play any clay-court tournaments either, opting to begin his comeback at Queen’s Club, a grass court precursor to Wimbledon held in west London. 


Stan Wawrinka, the 2015 French Open champion and 2017 finalist, will be a presence but not a challenge. He’s played three tournaments this year and has lost in the first round of each after returning to the game earlier this year from knee surgery.


Novak Djokovic, the last of the so-called Big Four, will land in Paris with as much headwind as he’s had in a year. His performances in Madrid and Rome, where he made the semifinals, were classic Djokovic. He hit his spots, stayed in long rallies and recovered quickly, and showed his testy side, as well, yelling at his box, chair-umpires and ball kids. The whole package was on display much to fans’ delight.


“It's not only a process for my game, but it's mental process, as well, to get back into that match play,” Djokovic said after his loss to Nadal in the Rome semifinal via ASAP Sports. “You know, you need to play matches to get back that kind of, you know, level of confidence that you need in order to compete with these kind of guys who are the best players in the world. And to have a chance to compete for the biggest trophies.


“And I've never faced this kind of -- that kind of situation before.”


Djokovic won Paris once in 2016, defeating Murray. The Serbian also lost three times in the final, twice to Nadal and once to Wawrinka. So even with his improved play, since wrist problems sent him to the sidelines last fall, his record has been strewn with dismal outcomes.


He lost to Taro Daniel, who at the time was ranked No. 109, in Indian Wells. Djokovic also lost to Benoit Paire (No. 47) in the first round of Miami. Bottom line, Djokovic hasn’t won a tournament since Eastbourne in 2017. 


“I thought that it’s not going to take me long to get back on the winning ways, but it actually happened [to] the contrary and I had to learn a lesson and accept the circumstances,” he said. “But, looking back two or three months, this is the best that I’ve felt on court, by far.”

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Alexander Zverev will look to capture his first major title at the French Open.

So, who’s left? Zverev and his contemporary, Dominic Thiem. 


Unlike Zverev, who has never beaten Nadal, Thiem has. The Austrian handed Nadal two loses on the slippery red surface over the last year: 2018 quarterfinals in Madrid and 2017 Rome quarterfinals. Thiem also beat Nadal on outdoor clay in 2016 during the semifinals in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Thiem’s strength includes a wicked inside-out forehand and a stunningly accurate one-handed backhand.


Zverev will be seeded No. 2 in Paris because of Federer’s absence. That seeding will be seriously tested, too. He lost in the first round in 2017 and has never advanced beyond the fourth round of any major in 11 appearances, even though his record outside slams is stellar. He has eight ATP career titles, three of them from Masters 1000s.


“Tennis is tennis,” Nadal said after his Rome win. “It doesn’t matter best of three [sets], best of five. Playing best of five is a big advantage for the best players, and Sascha is one of  the best players. So, it’s always a big advantage to him.”

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