Paris - With the world's top five filled for the first time
by players over 30, Rafael Nadal is poised to tighten the old guard's Grand
Slam grip by capturing an unprecedented 10th French Open.
The Spaniard, written off as a contender in Paris after a
quarter-final loss to Novak Djokovic in 2015 and an injury-enforced pull-out
before the third round last year, arrives at Roland Garros as the new favourite
to add the 2017 title to victories in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012,
2013 and 2014.
The 30-year-old has already reached the magical 10 titles
number this year at the clay-court events in Monte Carlo and Barcelona.
For good measure, he also won Madrid for a fifth time,
ending a seven-match losing streak, stretching back over two years, against
Djokovic in the process.
Nadal boasts a sensational career record at Roland Garros -
72 wins and just two defeats, to Djokovic in 2015 and an injury-affected shock
loss to Robin Soderling in 2009.
That defeat to the Swede opened the door for Roger Federer
to win his only French Open title.
However, Federer, at 35, the oldest man in the top five, is
skipping the French Open to save himself for an assault on an eighth Wimbledon.
Djokovic, the defending champion in Paris, and world number
one Andy Murray are struggling for form and confidence, leaving Nadal as the
man to beat when the tournament starts on Sunday.
Even losing in the Rome quarter-finals to young pretender
Dominic Thiem has not diminished the Spaniard's confidence.
"To win four tournaments before Roland Garros, nobody
has ever done this," said Nadal, who will turn 31 on June 3.
"But I have matched my best performances before
arriving in Paris."
Nadal has also thrived on hard courts in 2017, reaching his
first Slam final in three years when he lost in five sets to Federer in
Australia despite being a break to the good in the deciding set.
He was also a beaten finalist against Federer in Miami while
his title triumph in Madrid gave him a record-equalling 30th Masters title to
add to his 14 majors.
Nadal's record on clay against the world's top two is also
heavily-weighted in his favour - 8-2 against Murray (2-0 at Roland Garros) and
10-5 when facing Djokovic (5-1 in Paris).
This year's Roland Garros will be the last for Nadal's
coach, his uncle Toni.
In contrast, Djokovic will work with US legend Andre Agassi
for the first time, having dropped his long serving back-up team in a desperate
attempt to get his career back on track.
Djokovic completed the career Grand Slam at last year's
French Open when he also held all four majors.
On clay this year, he has at least been on an upward curve -
quarter-finals in Monte Carlo, semi-finals in Madrid and a runners-up spot in
Rome where he was comprehensively demolished by Alexander Zverev.
Djokovic's relationship with the 47-year-old Agassi, an
eight-time major winner, is limited, for the moment, to just the French Open.
"Andre is someone that I have tremendous respect for as
a person and as a player. He has been through everything that I'm going
through," said the Serb.
Murray, defeated by Djokovic in the 2016 final, has endured
a wretched season by his standards with an elbow injury not helping his cause.
He lost third round in Monte Carlo, made the semis in
Barcelona, was a third-round loser in Madrid before an opening defeat in Rome
to Fabio Fognini.
"There is no reason for it from my end. I'm just not
playing good tennis," said Murray, who had his best year on clay in 2016
but who has now failed to reach a final in his last five events.
World number three Stan Wawrinka, the shock champion in
2015, is also struggling with just two wins on clay all spring.
Should the likes of Nadal, Djokovic and Murray falter, then
the much-hyped #NextGen, featuring the likes of Zverev and Thiem could profit.
On Sunday, Zverev, 20, became the first player born in the
1990s to win a Masters title.
Thiem, the 23-year-old world number seven, stunned Nadal in
Rome after losing to the Spaniard in the Madrid and Barcelona finals.
However, he was crushed by Djokovic in the Rome semi-finals,
winning just one game.
At last year's French Open, he made the semi-finals, winning
just seven games off the Serb.