The “King of Clay” is ready to reign again.
Rafael Nadal may have won the last of his nine French Open titles in 2014, but after a difficult couple of seasons the Spaniard now looks back to his invincible best so will he finally achieve “La Decima” — by winning a historic 10th crown at Roland Garros?
Defending champion Novak Djokovic believes Nadal is the man to beat at Roland Garros, a tournament which starts on May 28, and not many would argue with the Serb based on the nine-time champion’s current form.
“He’s been playing some extraordinary tennis this year,” Djokovic tells CNN Sport. “He’s definitely going to be the player to beat. He always is and he always was on clay, especially in Roland Garros.”
Preparations perfect — Nadal
Were Nadal to end the next fortnight triumphant, it would be an unprecedented feat — no player in the open era has reached double digits in a single grand slam event.
Roger Federer and Pete Sampras have seven Wimbledon titles, Martina Navratilova nine. Nadal already stands alone with nine titles on the Parisian red dirt, a tournament in which he has lost only two matches since his debut as a 19-year-old in 2005.
With three titles this season and just one defeat on clay, the Spaniard, who turns 31 on June 3, tells CNN his preparations for Roland Garros have been “perfect.”
Nadal suffered his first clay-court defeat of the season in the quarterfinals of the Rome Masters last week, his 17-match winning run ended in a straight-sets defeat by Austrian Dominic Thiem.
But other than that blip, Nadal has looked in supreme form, collecting titles on clay, in Barcelona, Madrid and Monte Carlo.
While Nadal says winning in Monte Carlo and Barcelona — where he claimed his 10th titles in both events — have been “super important,” he admits it is difficult to describe his emotions when playing at Roland Garros.
“Every time that I am able to be back on this court brings me back to the past, back to amazing moments that I had there,” he tells CNN.
“I try to enjoy every moment that I am at Ronald Garros and every year that I’m able to come back and compete again is something unique.”
How important is achieving La Decima to Nadal?
“I’m very happy with nine to be honest,” says the Mallorcan, who missed the end of last season with a wrist injury.
“I am going to try to give myself more opportunities but I achieved much more than I ever dreamed.”
‘Djokovic and Murray will fight’
Nadal’s recent form, combined with the current struggles of world No.1 Andy Murray and world No.2 Djokovic, as well as the absence of the resting Roger Federer, make Nadal many people’s favorite to lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires on June 11.
But the 30-year-old refused to contemplate that the next fortnight will be straightforward.
“They are so good, no, they’re going to be fighting for the most important things and I am sure that they’re going to be fighting for Roland Garros,” said Nadal of Murray and Djokovic.
“They’re unbelievable players, unbelievable competitors and we’ll see what’s going on but I am happy what I’m doing but I am sure they’re gonna be playing very well.”
Nadal, who will play France’s Benoit Paire in the first round, is in the same half of the draw as Djokovic, who will take on the unseeded Marcel Granollers in the opening round.
Djokovic has himself admitted that he has been experiencing “a little bit of a crisis” since winning his first French Open title in 2016 to become the first male player to simultaneously hold all four grand slam titles since Rod Laver in 1969.
The Serb, who was knocked out of this year’s Australian Open in the second round, has won just one title this year.
In a bid to arrest his decline, the 30-year-old recently parted ways with his entire coaching team and has turned to former world number one Andre Agassi.
Nadal feats won’t be matched — Murray
Another player who has been out of sorts is Britain’s Murray. Like Djokovic, Murray has won one title this year but travels to Paris on the back of consecutive defeats.
Top seed Murray described Nadal ‘s French Open feats as “incredible.”
“He’s won nine French Opens, I don’t think even that will be matched ever to be honest,” the Olympic and Wimbledon champion — who will play Russia’s Andrey Kuznetsov in the first round — tells CNN.
“I don’t think anyone will get to nine at the same tournament. It’s just so difficult to do, especially on the clay. To have so few matches where you’re struggling or have let downs over a 12 to 14 year period — it’s incredible.
“This is not going to be easy obviously for him. Ten is a nice round number, but I’m hoping personally that he doesn’t win it this year obviously, but it would be a great achievement.”