Rafael Nadal will be setting his sights on an unprecedented 11th French Open title when the tournament begins in just over a weeks’ time at Roland-Garros. Nadal, the favorite at this event for more than the last decade, owns an astonishing 79-2 record at the French Open and showed no signs of slowing down last year en route to another Grand Slam victory.
While Nadal has been virtually unbeatable at the French Open over the course of his career, this is still professional sports where we have grown accustomed to expect the unexpected. This year is no different and when you begin to look at some of the possible challenges ahead for Nadal, a major upset may just be on the horizon.
Dominic Thiem will present Nadal with a significant challenge if they are to meet. Thiem has defeated Nadal on clay three times in his career, most recently just weeks ago in straight sets in Madrid. If Thiem is able to dictate the match, last year’s semi-finalist should be considered a major threat to take down Nadal.
Alexander Zverev might cause problems for Nadal at this year’s tournament. The current world number 3 is coming off an impressive clay court win in Madrid where he did not drop a single set. Zverev is due for a breakthrough at a Grand Slam and his time may finally arrive in Paris.
Novak Djokovic, the only active player to ever beat Nadal at Roland-Garros could pose a substantial threat. Djokovic, the French Open winner in 2016, has a 26-24 career record against Nadal, with seven of those wins coming on clay. If Djokovic is healthy and back to form, don’t be surprised if he is able to triumph over Nadal for a second time at this tournament.
Injury and Fatigue
For Rafael Nadal, it may be easier to list what injuries he hasn’t suffered through than the ones he has over his career. Nadal has suffered severe injuries to his knees, feet, back, wrist, and hamstring. 2018 has been no different as he was forced to withdraw from the Australian Open with a hip injury, which ultimately kept him sidelined for two months.
Since returning in April to the Davis Cup, Nadal has played in five tournaments, right up until this past week at the Italian Open. Nadal has put himself through a grueling last six weeks in an attempt to prepare himself for the French Open.
Nadal may not be playing at 100% and any one of his lingering injuries could resurface in the coming weeks. The potential for injury coupled with some certain fatigue from his cumbersome schedule leading up to now could present a real problem for the 31-year-old as he progresses through the tournament.
The pressure is on this year for Nadal to take home his 11th French Open crown. While Nadal is no stranger to thriving under pressure, there are a few things that will be on the back of his mind that could have a detrimental effect on his game if he allows them to surface.
First, the world number one ranking. Nadal will be in a virtual dead heat with Federer leading into the tournament. With 2,000 points to defend and a rejuvenated and rested Federer set to return in time for the grass season, a loss here could put Federer in the driver’s seat – all while not even stepping foot on a tennis court.
Second, the Grand Slam race. Currently, Federer leads career slams 20-16 and will be a serious contender at Wimbledon in July. Nadal needs a win just to keep pace with Federer or the lead could become insurmountable by years end. It would be naïve to believe he is not aware of this and is not highly motivated by chasing Federer and history itself at this stage in his career.