Battle on clay begins

Indifferent form poses Nadal a huge challenge

Battle on clay begins

Say it quietly but some chinks are appearing in the suit of armour 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 title hopes.
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 mighty close.

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 back problems. 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.

Nadal is sthe bookmakers' favourite 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.

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 force.

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 quarterfinals.

Serena favourite

Six different champions in the last six years suggests that tipping a French Open women’s champion is something of a lottery, but those backing world No 1 Serena Williams are surely investing wisely.

It was a return to the form that helped Williams win 11 titles in 2013 and proof, if any were needed, that the fire within burns as ferociously as ever as she returns to the city she calls her second home chasing an 18th Major singles that would tie her with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. The former French Open champion Li Na is probably her main rival as the Chinese attempts to become the first player since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to win the year’s first two Slams.

Maria Sharapova, winner in 2012 and runner-up last year, will also be confident of a strong run after beating Li on the way to claiming the Madrid title earlier this month.

Poland’s gritty World No 3 Agnieszka Radwanska, and Serbian duo Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic, the champion in 2008, will also be strong contenders while Simona Halep, the aggressive Romanian baseliner who has blasted into the top four, is more than capable of causing an upset. Gone are the days, it seems, when a teenager would jump out of the pack to capture a Grand Slam.

World number two Li is also 32 and, like Williams, appears to be still improving. She showed with her magnificent 2011 run in Paris when becoming the first player from an Asian country to win a Grand Slam singles title that she has the tools and the temperament to survive two weeks of claycourt battles. A dark horse for the title could be Romanian Halep -- the most improved player on the Tour

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