The return of Roger Federer to Euroclay and, ultimately, the French Open (he hasn’t appeared at Roland Garros since 2015) has been the main storyline in the ATP this spring. But other factors have contributed to making these past few weeks perhaps the most exciting run-up to the French Open in years.
While Federer was searching for his clay game with notable success, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal — his two main rivals in the record book — were playing hot potato with the label “favorite.” They ended up splitting the two most prestigious Masters clay events, in Madrid (Djokovic) and Rome (Nadal). Fittingly, they finally met Sunday in the final of the Italian Open — the last major match before the French Open.
But for overview, there’s a lot more at stake for these three titans of the game than yet another Grand Slam title. Here’s a look at what earning that title might mean for each man and how likely each of them is to succeed.
What the world number has to gain: Djokovic has won the past three Grand Slams. Should he win the French Open, he will have completed a second “Djoker Slam,” the term now used to describe the rare feat of the eponymous player holding all four Grand Slam titles at the same time.
The gold standard “Grand Slam” describes winning all four Grand Slam titles in the same calendar year — something only the winner of the Australian Open in any given year can accomplish.
Djokovic is the Australian champion, so a Djoker Slam could evolve into a Grand Slam, leaving Djokovic just the third man in tennis history to record a Grand Slam.
What he has to lose: Djokovic has quietly crept close to Federer and Nadal in the Grand Slam singles title count. He now has 15, just two behind Nadal but still five short of Federer. Should Djokovic make the French final, he will be 32 years old. Federer, 37, has added only three major titles since he turned 32 (but has played in six finals). Djokovic can’t waste any opportunity to win a major if he hopes to catch Federer.
Nadal could add to his already mind-blowing single Slam record by winning at Roland Garros for the 12th time. That also would draw him within two majors of Federer’s record 20. Should Nadal surpass that record, the GOAT debate (in which Federer currently is the popular choice) changes, given that Nadal’s head-to-head record against the Swiss icon already is a convincing 23-15. With a win in Paris, Nadal also would confirm that despite those recurring injuries, he can still reach his once-familiar heights.
What he has to lose: Never mind this era. It’s unlikely anyone will ever usurp the throne of the “King of Clay.” But losses to his main rivals would do more damage to Nadal’s reputation than failure against, say, a rising young star such as Dominic Thiem. A loss to Djokovic would provide the Serb star with a significant entry in his already positive series record (Djokovic leads 28-26) as well as a second French Open conquest. A loss to Federer at Roland Garros would be a startling first.
Nadal said yesterday that he “doesn’t care” if he is the red-hot favourite to lift a record-extending 12th French Open title at Roland Garros, insisting that there are a host of players in contention for the trophy.
The world No 2 holds an incredible French Open win-loss record of 86-2, and hit top form by winning his ninth Italian Open last week with a final victory over old rival Novak Djokovic.
Nadal could move to within two titles of Roger Federer’s all-time men’s record of 20 Grand Slam trophies if he lifts the Coupe des Mousquetaires on 9 June.
“I don’t care if I’m the favourite,” he said. “I care about feeling well and playing well.
“I appreciate that you (the media) see me like that, but (Dominic) Thiem, Novak (Djokovic), Federer, Tsitsipas who has been playing well, (Juan Martin) del Potro, (Kei) Nishikori – all those that are the best in the world will be favourites.”
Nadal admits it took him time to rediscover his top form after a one-month absence with the right knee injury which forced him to withdraw from Indian Wells before a scheduled semifinal against Federer.
A win would boost Federer’s haul of major titles to 21. That ought to be enough to put the record out of reach for Nadal (17), who is 32 and frequently hobbled, as well as Djokovic (15). A victory in Paris also would give Federer a résumé-balancing second French Open title and add to his legacy, ranking as the most improbable of his many remarkable achievements.
What he has to lose: Federer going into Roland Garros personifies the expression, “He’s playing with house money.” Sure, a humiliating defeat dealt by a clay-court grinder on a cold, wet day would be a bummer for Federer and his fans. But Federer really is playing mostly for the fun of it.
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