Rafael Nadal: Who can stop the 'King of Clay' at the French Open?

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 5/21/2018, 10 a.m.
Perhaps the question heading into next week's French Open should be: "Who can take a set off Rafael Nadal?" instead ...
Rafael Nadal is seeking 11th title at the French Open.

By Ravi Ubha, CNN

(CNN) -- Perhaps the question heading into next week's French Open should be: "Who can take a set off Rafael Nadal?" instead of "Who can beat Nadal?'"

The Spaniard, dubbed the "King of Clay," is the white-hot favorite to land a record-extending 11th title at Roland Garros.

And given he recently set the men's record for most consecutive tennis sets won -- all on his beloved clay -- it would be some stretch to look elsewhere for a winner.

Take this stunning statistic: Nadal owns a 79-2 win-loss record at the French Open, where the best-of-five set format makes the 31-year-old even harder to defeat. He's only lost to Sweden's Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009 and Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinal in 2015.

Plus, Nadal has been busy adding to his trophy haul on clay in the buildup, triumphing in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and then the Italian Open in Rome Sunday.

"Rafa is for me a clear-cut favorite to win No. 11," six-time grand slam winner Boris Becker, who was coaching Djokovic when the Serb downed Nadal in Paris three years ago, told CNN Sport.

"He's by far the favorite. There are a couple of others coming around the block, but I wouldn't even name them because in my eyes if Rafa stays healthy, injury free, I don't see anybody taking it but him."

But if there is to be a monumental upset at the French Open, who might be on the other side of the net? Start with this quintet, which doesn't include the absent Roger Federer.

Novak Djokovic

Djokovic isn't the player he was in 2016, when he won the French Open to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to land four consecutive majors. A loss of focus, intensity and an elbow injury that necessitated surgery this year have all contributed to -- by his standards -- a worrying slump.

However, Djokovic has been Nadal's toughest opponent throughout his career -- still holding a winning head-to-head record and beating him seven times on clay. No one else comes close.

And he was encouraged by his outing against Nadal in the Rome semifinals Saturday. Djokovic tested Nadal prior to succumbing 7-6 (7-4) 6-3. In an indication of the uneasiness Nadal feels when confronting Djokovic, he was often passive and initially let slip a 5-2 lead in the first set.

If they do square off again at the French Open, 12-time grand slam winner Djokovic will surely have benefited from playing Nadal in the Eternal City, despite the end result. It was their first clash since Madrid last year, and the gap was much less than it has been at times.

Djokovic's stint in Rome marked his first semifinal, too, since the Wimbledon warmup of Eastbourne last June. He has reunited with the most influential coach in his career, Marian Vajda, after splitting with tennis legend Andre Agassi and former top-10 pro Radek Stepanek.