A lot has been made of the world number one's losses to David Ferrer, Nicolas Almagro and Novak Djokovic since the beginning of the clay swing, but he's still the bookies' favourite to succeed once again at Roland Garros, and here's why:
The main court at Roland Garros, where Nadal is almost certain to play each of his matches, is the biggest surface on tour. This means that Rafa will have more space in which to pull off the impossible gets that have been such an integral part of him becoming the greatest clay court player of all time. While this will also play into the hands of some of his main rivals, including Novak Djokovic, nobody has exploited this characteristic of the French Open centre court better than the Spaniard in the past.
2. Five Set Matches
The added length of Grand Slam matches will, as ever, play into the world number one's hands, having already taken his fair share of wins against opponents this spring who have been unable to keep up the pace for three sets, let alone five. If the likes of Kei Nishikori, Mikhail Youzhny and Andy Murray were unable to match the Spaniard's fitness to close out wins in Madrid and Rome these past few weeks, try telling them that if they cross paths with Nadal in Paris, they'll have to be fit enough to win three sets against him this time, instead of just two.
3. The nature of Grand Slam draws
For a top player short on confidence, the early rounds of the four Grand Slam events can offer something of a reprieve, as the top seeds are protected from facing anyone inside the top 32 for at least two matches. Nadal will be seeded to face somebody seeded 25-32 in the third round, the most dangerous of which could be Marin Cilic, Gilles Simon or Santiago Giraldo. It's hard to see Rafa losing in the opening three rounds, allowing him to build momentum and grow comfortable with his game before reaching the business end of the tournament, where he'll then be faced with opponents who can do some damage if he's not at his best.
4. Struggles of his Rivals
For all the talk of Rafa being more vulnerable on clay than ever before, things haven't exactly been going swimmingly for the other big guns. Novak Djokovic was forced to compromise his preparations for the second major of the year with a wrist injury, Swiss stars and potential semi-final opponents Federer and Wawrinka picked up one win between them in the Madrid-Rome double header, and Andy Murray has endured his most difficult year for a long time. David Ferrer is the best player who has shown consistent form on the clay since Monte Carlo, yet he enters the event without a title since Buenos Aires.
5. The Mental Game
Despite all this, you may think that a Novak Djokovic or a Stanislas Wawrinka has what it takes to overcome Rafa in a five-set clay court match, and you could be right. However, the last hurdle each of Nadal's rivals has to contend with once they get into a winning position is the question at the back of their mind - "Can I really do this? Defeat the guy who's won this tournament 8 times?". The Serb, in particular, had passed every other test in the semi-finals last year until he got over-excited, sliding into the net and costing himself a vital point which marked the turning of the tide as the eventual champion went on to win an epic final set 9-7. You'd expect a champion of Novak's character not to make the same mistake this year, but if Wawrinka, Federer, Murray, or anyone else find themselves in that position, they'll have to show the kind of mental resolve that has only been seen from Robin Soderling since 2004, in order to oust Rafa from his favourite tournament.
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