PARIS — For once, not everything seems so obvious heading into the French Open.
Yes, Rafael Nadal will still be favored by most to win the clay-court Grand Slam tournament yet again. He is, after all, 59-1 for his career at Roland Garros, winner of a record eight championships, including the last four.
Still, if the 2014 tennis season to date is any indication, there could be some surprises in store when play begins in Paris on Sunday. So far, there already was one new major champion, Stanislas Wawrinka at the Australian Open. And there has been a rather egalitarian feel to the spring clay circuit, with nine winners at nine tournaments.
The three top men in the ATP rankings — No. 1 Nadal, No. 2 Novak Djokovic and No. 3 Wawrinka — each claimed a Masters title on the slow red surface, including Djokovic’s victory over Nadal in the Rome final last weekend. That gave Nadal three clay losses in a season for the first time since 2004, when he was all of 17 and yet to make his French Open debut.
“It’s more normal this year than the last 10 years have been because the last years have been strange and we’ve gotten used to having these great finals between the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the world and one player dominating the whole year — and we started to think that’s normal. Really, that’s the exception,” said Mats Wilander, who won the French Open three times in the 1980s.
“Heading into the French Open, it’s more exciting. The regular tour probably benefits from having one superstar that’s cleaning up everything, or maybe a rivalry,” Wilander added. “But the French Open and the other Slams benefit from having no clear-cut favorite. That’s the way it used to be, and I think it’s better. I don’t think we want to go there and ask ourselves: Is Nadal going to win a ninth time? That just doesn’t excite me at all. It’s much more exciting to think that Djokovic is the favorite or that (Roger) Federer has a chance.”
Not surprisingly, Nadal does not exactly agree.
He’ll be seeded No. 1 for only the third time at Roland Garros — one of those years, 2009, was when his lone loss came, against Robin Soderling in the fourth round — but he could relinquish the top ranking to Djokovic over the course of the 15-day tournament.
Asked about the idea of this year’s French Open being a little less predictable, Nadal replied: “I don’t care. I don’t know. I think about myself. What I have to do.”
In addition to dropping a fourth consecutive head-to-head match against Djokovic, Nadal’s defeat at the Italian Open followed a series of difficult three-setters in Rome, as well as losses in the — gasp! — quarterfinals of Monte Carlo and Barcelona.
His 41-match winning streak at Barcelona ended against Nicolas Almagro, who had been 0-10 against Nadal.
That came after being beaten at Monte Carlo by David Ferrer, whom Nadal easily beat in last year’s French Open final and hadn’t lost to anywhere on clay in a decade.
Then again, as Wilander points out, these earlier-than-usual exits mean Nadal arrives in Paris with less wear and tear. Plus those losses were all in best-of-three-set matches, while the French Open is best-of-five. And Nadal did earn the title at the Madrid Open, so he knows he’s not completely out of sorts.
“There’s all this scar tissue he can reason with and say, ‘Hold on, I won Madrid, this is the French Open, I’m fresher than ever.’ He’s going to put a little less pressure on himself but still go in with a sense of confidence knowing it’s five sets,” Wilander said. “And he can think, ‘What are they going to do? How are they going to beat me in two hours? That’s never going to happen. I have four hours to solve this problem.’ That gives him confidence right away.”
Djokovic, for his part, is trying to complete a career Grand Slam with his first French Open title, after losing to Nadal in the semifinals last year and the final in 2012. He was sidelined recently with an injured right wrist but sure looked absolutely fine in Rome.
The Serb called his victory there “definitely a confidence booster” because beating Nadal on clay is the “ultimate challenge.”
“I’m very happy with my game so far,” Djokovic said, “and hopefully I can carry that into Roland Garros.”