By Richard Martin
BARCELONA (Reuters) - Rafael Nadal has hit form at the perfect time heading into the French Open after a slow start, by his standards, to the claycourt season caused some to doubt his chances of continuing his vice-like grip on the tournament.
Nadal has made a habit of cleaning up at the warm-up tournaments to Roland Garros, but semi-final defeats in Madrid, Barcelona and Monte Carlo led to a sense that his dominance on clay might be receding.
Yet with the prospect of a record-extending 12th title appearing far from certain, the Spaniard showed rumours of his demise were greatly exaggerated with an outstanding 6-0 4-6 6-1 victory over Novak Djokovic to win the Italian Open.
Few would now bet against him continuing his dominance on the surface in Paris, where he has only dropped one set since 2016.
Nadal's rivals will have to hope the King of Clay is shorn of peak fitness.
He had only recently recovered from the knee injury which caused him to retire from Indian Wells, when he lost to Fabio Fognini in straight sets in Monte Carlo, which he described as one of his worst ever displays on clay.
He was in rusty form at the Barcelona Open and fell to another straight sets defeat to Dominic Thiem, who he crushed in the 2018 French Open final, and was beaten by Stefanos Tsitsipas when hampered by a stomach bug at the Madrid Open.
He was back to his imperious best in Italy, avenging his defeat to Tsitsipas before whitewashing world number one Djokovic in the opening set for the first time on his way to a first title of the season which is unlikely to be the last.
"I don't think Rafa needed to win in Rome to prove that he is the toughest guy to beat on clay, but it was a statement for the opponents," Eurosport tennis expert Alex Corretja told Reuters.
"(It was) like 'ok, I haven't won as many tournaments as before during the claycourt season but I'm still the toughest guy to beat', and for his self-confidence and his rhythm and his movement it was very important that he played Rome and he won...
"And it's better that he won in Rome rather than win in Monte Carlo. It's perfect timing, I think he has reached a crescendo in Rome."
The 17-times Grand Slam champion certainly never doubted himself once he returned to full fitness.
"The most important thing is I feel that I'm playing well and feeling healthy and with the energy I need," he said.
"If that happens, experience tells me I'm going to fight for titles sooner or later. The main thing for me was recover my level, then the results should be there if that happens."
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Toby Davis)