London - Seven-time grand slam John McEnroe knows how it feels when a tennis
career starts going in the wrong direction.
That's why he is paying careful attention to Rafa Nadal's current travails
as the Spaniard prepares to try and win a record-extending 10th French Open.
At nearly 29, Nadal is already four years older than McEnroe was when he
claimed his last grand slam title.
And after a season in which once rare defeats on his favoured clay-courts
have arrived with alarming frequency, no wonder many believe Nadal has reached
a tipping point.
McEnroe, however, thinks it is foolhardy to dismiss the Mallorcan as a
fading force and fully expects him to find his 'A game' in the days ahead.
"He obviously wants to try to peak for the French," McEnroe, who
will form part of Eurosport's commentary team at the championships, told
Reuters by telephone on Thursday.
"He was out for a while, he came back, he figured he would work his way
back to the sort of level he needs and the confidence level he needs to win
"I guess by Madrid or Rome he would at least liked to have won one or
two but it's hard not to think that he's gonna take it up to another level (at
the French) unless there's physically something wrong with him."
Former world number one McEnroe says everything points to Novak Djokovic
winning his first French Open and says the only player capable of stopping the
in-form Serb is Nadal.
"It's hard to think that there's anyone who could beat Novak other than
(Nadal) in a five set match based on what I've seen," said McEnroe, who
let slip a two-set lead against Ivan Lendl in the 1984 French Open final and
was never the same again.
While McEnroe's career decline was triggered by the early retirement of
great rival Bjorn Borg at 25, Nadal, according to McEnroe, is suffering the
consequences of his physical style.
Where Pete Sampras used to serve players off court, 17-times grand slam
champion Roger Federer dazzles and Djokovic clinically dissects them, Nadal's
magnificent career has been built on warrior-like instincts.
"He's had such an unbelievable record but he's a human being and at
some point it tails off to some degree," the 56-year-old said.
"It's hard to pinpoint when exactly that will happen but he doesn't
seem like he's himself.
"Maybe on the clay where you have to grind more than on other surfaces,
you can get exposed a little sooner and people start wondering what's going on.
"There's always a moment in a players' career when it starts to go in
the wrong direction or they stop playing altogether."
"He's put a lot of miles on the body, and mentally the way he operates
and the energy he uses emotionally and physically, given his style of play, it
takes its toll.
"He's the type of guy that likes matches but he's also the type of guy
that needs more rest so that's a difficult line to find that right mix at this
While all eyes will be on Nadal and Djokovic, McEnroe said Andy Murray and
Japan's Kei Nishikori are the two most likely players to spring a surprise.
"Murray has always had the game to do well at the French and he's made
a couple of semis and right now is playing with the most confidence I've ever
seen him on clay," he said.
"And Nishikori beat Novak at the US Open in extreme heat, he did an
unbelievable job and it's conceivable he could do that again."