When the King of Clay goes into the French Open as anything less than the favorite to win it all, people start to talk. In the 100+ history of the tournament, no singles player has won on the legendary clay courts at Roland Garros more than Rafael Nadal. Dating back to 2005, Rafa has won the French Open eight out of nine times. If you’re a statistics guys, that’s a record of 58-1, putting his winning percentage for the tournament at 98%. Those are crazy numbers.
Despite his profound success in the past, however, fans (and even oddsmakers) aren’t so quick to pin Nadal as the clear-cut favorite for this year’s edition of the grand slam. So why the apprehension?
You don’t have to look past 2014 to realize why folks aren’t convinced that the most decorated and accomplished man in French Open history will taste victory again. You see, this year alone Nadal has lost twice on clay—the quarterfinals at Monte Carlo and Barcelona. To put things in perspective, he hasn’t lost three clay court matches in a single season since 2003 (back when he was 16 years old).
Are people just overreacting to the recent results? Probably. Think about it—the Roland Garros clay for Nadal is probably the greatest home-court advantage in the history of tennis. Even in the lone year (2009) in which he lost at the French Open, Rafa still managed to make it deep into the fourth round before losing to a red-hot Robin Soderling. The fact of the matter is, there’s a big difference between a tune-up tournament like the ones he lost at in preparation for the French Open, and a major tournament like Roland Garros. Philipe Court Chatrier is his domain. I still like his chances despite all the overblown stats; he's still the man to beat.
The only player who can seriously give the top-ranked Nadal a run for his money is Novak Djokovic. Many oddsmakers have the second-ranked Serb as at least the co-favorite to hoist La Coupe de Mousquetaires two Sundays from now. Though, it’s worth noting that Djokoivic has yet to win at the French Open. In fact, it’s the one grand slam tournament that has eluded him thus far in his accomplished career. His best result was a 2012 finals loss to, who else, Nadal. Perhaps that will give him the added motivation to go for broke this year. Let’s not forget, too, that a win at Roland Garros will give Novak the No. 1 spot in the ATP rankings. Needless to say, there's a lot on the like for the Djoker.
Food for thought: As much as it pains me to pick the two best players in the world as the favorites to win, let’s be real—outside of Roger Federer maybe, its tough to pick a dark horse from this year’s French Open (even though the 127-player draw is the largest in tournament history).
Don’t expect any Americans to win. Our guys aren’t particularly good on clay so don’t even bother. It would be nice to see a Frenchman finally win since Yannick Noah did it back in ’83. Jo Wilfried Tsonga is probably France’s best hope for a homegrown winner. Countryman Gael Monfils has been playing well as of late, though I’m not convinced he’s quite ready for that next step towards greatness.
Gurvinder is a writer for Complex Media. Food, sneakers, travel, pop culture, sports— these are just a few of his favorite things. Follow him on Twitter @GurvinderSG