By Julien Pretot
PARIS (Reuters) – “Jeu, set et match Rafa Nadal.”
The words are likely to be heard seven times at the French Open as the Spanish juggernaut guns for a record-extending 11th title at Roland Garros.
Nadal, who has a 79-2 win-loss record on the Parisian clay, enters his title defence after a stellar season on his favourite surface.
He won at Monte Carlo and Barcelona, claimed a record 50 consecutive sets, then bounced back from defeat in Madrid to take the title in Rome.
His last defeat at Roland Garros came in 2015 when he lost to Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals.
While upset by Dominic Thiem in Madrid earlier this month, he will be harder to beat in the best-of-five sets.
“Nadal is always the favourite, then I come behind with four or five other players,” said Thiem, who ended Nadal’s 50-set winning streak.
The 24-year-old Austrian is the only player to beat Nadal on clay in the last two years but he was thrashed in straight sets by the Spaniard in last year’s French Open semi-finals.
Still, Henri Leconte, the 1988 runner-up, feels Nadal could be vulnerable.
“For the moment Dominic Thiem beat him in Madrid but still Rafa is the number one,” he told Reuters.
“But there’s still an opportunity for someone to beat him at the French. It’s difficult because it’s five sets. I don’t know why but there could be an opportunity. He is the best player of all time on clay.”
If Thiem cannot deliver, the 21-year-old Alexander Zverev might be the man in the absence of Roger Federer, who is skipping the claycourt season.
“(Zverev) is way more mature now in the last two or three months, even since Australia,” three-times French Open champion Mats Wilander told Reuters.
“He is more certain of how he needs to play.”
Zverev lost to Nadal in the Rome final but showed the full potential of his game when he took the second set 6-1 before fading away.
“Nadal doesn’t really have a weakness,” added Wilander.
“The only thing is that the next generation, the 19-23 year-olds, they don’t have the fear factor against him like the likes of Nishikori, Dimitrov, Raonic have.
“They have less baggage. Zverev, his game-plan against Nadal is pretty clear.
“He has the kind of game-plan that Soderling and Djokovic had when they beat Rafa at the French, which is, don’t stay away from his forehand but hit hard on his forehand to open up the backhand side.”
Although ranked outside the top 20, the 2016 champion Djokovic will also be closely watched, having shown signs that he is emerging from the toughest spell of his career.
The 12-times grand slam champion was beaten 7-6(4) 6-3 by Nadal at the Rome semi-finals but produced a level of tennis that should leave potential opponents in the draw nervous.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Ian Ransom)