After Nadal’s successful return from a career-threatening injury break, I had earmarked him as comfortable favourite for the French Open title. Now I am not so sure.
It’s not just that Djokovic beat Nadal on the brown stuff: his two previous clay victories also came in Masters finals at Madrid and Rome two years ago, but even then Rafa went on to win the French Open.
No, it’s the manner in which Djokovic dispatched the Spaniard, bullying and dominating him around his preferred surface, even though Rafa had looked the real deal in the week leading up to the final.
What really surprised me was one individual statistic of that match – that Djokovic had won over 90% of all points that had gone beyond 10 shots. On clay Djokovic was winning the long points, previously the exclusive domain of Nadal.
When Djokovic had beaten Nadal on clay in the past, he usually did so by shortening the points, attacking Rafa’s power and using it to generate some amazing defensive winners. But this time Nole was dictating the points, winning the gruelling rallies and imposing himself on all aspects of Nadal’s game.
This could easily be a question of fitness though.
Along with David Ferrer, Djokovic has the best endurance of anyone on the tour and he has the mental reserves to stay in points and matches he has no business winning, ankle injury or no ankle injury.
He is at his bendy best right now, while Nadal is feeling his way back after missing eight months through injury. He may be playing well, looking confident (and lighter, which will help the knees) and seamlessly re-integrating to the demands of the tour, but he cannot be 100% match-fit and certainly not 'tour-fit'.
You get to your peak fitness (and peak form) by playing lots of tennis matches, which is why the top players seem to improve towards the end of Grand Slam events, despite having stuck around to the latter stages of so many tour events in between.
Rafa was probably a touch undercooked going into Monte Carlo, having taken an additional month off after his initial comeback. Perhaps he was using Monte Carlo as an opportunity to regain some match fitness, having done the sensible thing in giving his body a rest after returning to the tour?
A few weeks ago myself and Mats Wilander spoke to Toni Nadal, Rafa’s coach and uncle, who said that Nadal would be among a group of favourites for the French Open, a group that is headed by Djokovic and also includes the likes of Andy Murray, David Ferrer and Juan Martin Del Potro (the exclusion of Roger Federer from that list could be as much down to mind-games as Fed’s relative disinterest towards clay).
What was notable from that comment was Rafa’s inclusion in a group of candidates, as opposed to being the clear favourite, which you would expect his coach to say.
Uncle Toni also said that “looking confident” – as Rafa was at that moment – had no impact on a player’s game; indeed, he argues that it is the other way round, that you play and feel well first, win matches next and the confidence follows later. He pointed out that you never see confident players doing badly, but you will see men lacking in confidence do well. That theory is in keeping with the logic that tennis players actually improve the more games they play, fatigue ceasing to be a factor once a certain level of endurance is built.
Nadal is probably short of this level, which you would expect him to reach by the summer, realistically. For this reason and this reason alone, I have revised my prediction for Roland Garros – being a Rafa fan, I would put it as 50-50 with Djokovic, but you have to favour Nole’s superior fitness to see him through.
NO WORRIES FOR HARD-WORKING MURRAY
The usual anti-Murray brigade were out in force after his disappointing loss to Stanislas Wawrinka at Monte Carlo. I wouldn’t read too much into that defeat – despite having grown up playing on clay, it is Murray’s least favourite surface because he enjoys being able to maximise his ability to hit big winners on the harder courts.
He certainly has the game and physique for clay, counterpunching as well as he does and moving nicely on the softer sliding surface. And he has been working incredibly hard on it too – he stayed in Monte Carlo right to the end, despite going out, so he could continue hitting and working on the clay.
Remember that Djokovic fell in straight sets to Tommy Haas in Miami not so long ago, so the top players are allowed the odd dud match. Just the odd one, mind.
I can’t see Murray contending for the title in Paris unless one of Nadal or Djokovic slips up at some point, but he’s certainly going to stick around, with the semis a probability. Similarly with Federer, I cannot see him placing more than a passing priority on Roland Garros at this stage of his career, but he’ll go out there and enjoy himself for sure.
Ferrer and Del Potro have a bigger chance of doing something special, but the former will need to avoid Nadal and the latter find the added inspiration he needs to excel.
Nadal’s progress is not a shoo-in though, as if he’s seeded fifth he could end up facing Djokovic in what would be a nightmarish quarter-final. If he avoids that though, it’s a straight race between those two, with Murray and Fed waiting in the wings.