- Chris Wilkinson
Nadal the man to beat but Djokovic can prosper in ParisChris Wilkinson May 21, 2013
In recent years the French Open has been about one man; Rafael Nadal. The 26-year-old has dominated the Paris tournament in recent years, amassing seven titles in the last eight years at Roland Garros.
The first thing to note about Nadal is that, since his return, he has made eight finals and won six of them; that in itself is pretty incredible. His latest victory over Roger Federer at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia, despite the Swiss not being at his best, was another outstanding performance to win his 41st career title on clay.
Another interesting point regarding the Spaniard is that he has no points to defend from Wimbledon onwards, due to his injury absence in late 2012. Realistically, he has to defend his Paris crown but towards the end of the year he will be playing for points to add to his total. World No. 1 status is certainly a possibility if Nadal carries on his recent form.
However, if anyone has got the game to beat the heavy favourite, it is the current world No. 1 Novak Djokovic. The Serb proved it in the final of the Monte Carlo Masters when he ended Nadal's eight year reign at the tournament. Looking at how Nadal plays, he likes to force his opponent wide on the backhand but Djokovic tends to hold the base-line more and is able to do that little bit more with the ball.
Djokovic has the game to beat Nadal on any surface. The three-time Australian Open champion has suffered a couple of bad results as of late, losing to Grigor Dimitrov at the Mutua Madrid Open and then Tomas Berdych in Rome so his form has dipped slightly. But the likes of Nadal, Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray are different beasts at the grand slams; it's best of five sets and their fitness usually tends to prevail. These guys can take it to another level.
At the start of the year, the aim is to get to all four of the grand slams. That's what it's all about - and I think the top four will be there or thereabouts. But there is always a chance of the odd shock, like when Nadal lost to Lukas Rosol in the second round at Wimbledon last year.
US Open winner Murray may miss out the trip to France, but I think he will wait until the end of the week before making his decision. It is a tough one for Murray, he has to think whether he has more chance of winning in Paris or at Wimbledon in June. It will be about finding the balance; does he want to be at his strongest for when Wimbledon comes around? Only Andy Murray knows the answer to that.
One dark horse that I do fancy to do well in Paris, however, is the world No. 5 David Ferrer. The Spaniard was unlucky to meet compatriot Nadal in the quarter-final of both the Madrid Open and in Rome. Any other route and he certainly had the game to reach the final in both of those tournaments. Ferrer is an incredible clay-court player and is relentless when in top form; he has a good chance to do well at the French Open.
In terms of other players to watch out for, I think it is important to look at the big hitters. Berdych has done well of late and the likes of Stanislas Wawrinka could also sneak through.
Looking at the women's side, Serena Williams has enjoyed a perfect start to her clay-court campaign so far. At the moment she is streets ahead of anyone else, but again when it comes to a grand slam, it is a different situation altogether. Fitness comes into it a lot more, especially playing longer games over a longer period of time and there is always a slightly greater chance you can pick up an injury along the way.
Maria Sharapova won this tournament last year and will have that feeling behind her as she steps up to defend her crown. That's an important thing to possess. Quite often a player will return to where they have experienced success before and do well again, so that feeling can sometimes be an advantage. It eases the mentality and offers a sense of comfort; a player will like the conditions at a certain tournament, will like their surroundings and it will show on court.
Conditions do play a large factor as they affect game style in many ways. In Madrid, players were playing at altitude which meant for a slightly quicker court whereas in Rome it appeared a lot slower so there is that side of the game to consider as well.
Finally, Laura Robson will be looking for an upturn in fortune in Paris. On her day, Robson has the game to beat anyone. In the last six months she's had some fantastic wins against the likes of Li Na and world No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska. There is no reason why, with a favourable draw, she can't reach the last-16 or quarter-final stage because she has the big game needed to do that.
Robson has got other areas of her game that she needs to work on, but let's remember that she is only 19 years old. It is easy to forget that fact considering what she has achieved and it easy to think she has been around for years. Hopefully Robson and Heather Watson, who has been sidelined through illness, will give the Brits something to cheer about in the main draw.
Chris Wilkinson is a former British No. 1