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French Open 2014: Is Rafael Nadal still the favourite to lift the trophy?

Rafael Nadal cradling the 2013 French Open trophy

The second Grand Slam of the year is starting from 25th May at Roland Garros. The French Open is arguably the toughest tournament in the world. The slow claycourts demand exceptional physical strength from the players and, of course, this is the only tournament on clay where players compete in best of 5 sets format. Long rallies are a hallmark of the tournament and every single point is hard earned. The tradition at the year’s second Grand Slam is one of toil and struggle. 

And yet, the title favourite in the men’s singles category is usually a no-brainer. Rafael Nadal has made Roland Garros his personal stomping ground, having won the tournament eight times in the last nine years. However, this year Nadal’s title defence is looking a little shaky. For the first time in a decade, Nadal is not going to start the championship as the favourite.

The ‘King of Clay’ has lost three claycourt matches in a single season for the first time since 2004. Nadal lost his hold on the Monte Carlo Masters, the Barcelona Open and the Rome Masters, losing against three different opponents. He did win the Madrid Masters, yes, but Japan's Kei Nishikori gave him a tough time in the final before retiring with an injury. 

Novak Djokovic had the last laugh in Rome, defeating Nadal in the final for his fourth consecutive victory over the Spaniard. And most of these wins have been comprehensive too; the Serb has won eight of the last nine sets against Nadal.

Djokovic has made no secret of his ambition to win the French Open, and he has come close in the past. In both 2011 and 2012, he was in the form of his life leading up to the tournament, but Roger Federer (2011 semifinal) and Nadal (2012 final) ended his challenge. This is the only Major missing from his trophy cabinet, the absence of which is stopping him from joining the company of legends.

But this may well be Djokovic’s year at Roland Garros. Since the birth of his twin sons Leo and Lenny, Federer has been looking nervy; he took an early flight from Rome to Basel after his opening round defeat to Jeremy Chardy, and he also lost the Monte Carlo final against his countryman. On the other hand, Stanislas Wawrinka is again looking short of form after early exits in Madrid and Rome.

A lot of players are recovering from injury or poor form, while some have been ruled out altogether. Juan Martin del Potro will miss the tournament due to his wrist injury. Claycourts don’t suit big-serving Milos Raonic, and Tomas Berdych has an average record at Paris. Andy Murray is still searching for his previous self belief after undergoing back surgery last year, although his battle against Nadal in Rome would have given him plenty of confidence. 

But there are a lot of other players who are knocking at the door. Kei Nishikori is definitely a player to watch out for. His presence in Paris is doubtful but if he puts on his boots then he will be the dark horse of the tournament. Grigor Dimitrov, meanwhile, has a lot of shades of Andrei Medvedev, and he is rising up the ladder very quickly. At Rome he celebrated his birthday in style by reaching the semifinals. Although he was crushed by Nadal once he got there, he may well turn out to be a giant-killer in Paris.

For a decade, the trophy has been synonymous with a single player. But that may not be the case this year. In 2014, for the first time in a long, long while, the French Open is literally ‘open’.

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