Rafael Nadal needs to become the sole holder of the record for Roland Garros titles; He needs to move up the all-time Grand Slam charts, making it to 11, five less than Federer; He needs to stop Novak Djokovic’s streak of Grand Slam titles. He needs to win the 2012 French Open, in 8 words.
And he’s the favorite, as always, heading into his favorite Slam, one he’s dominated so easily through the last seven years except for one time, when it was Robin Soderling who stood in his way. That was Nadal’s only defeat in the tournament, and according to his form this season on the ‘Red’ clay courts, he’s not planning on adding a second loss to his French Open resume.
Novak Djokovic did lose the match between them in Rome more than Nadal won it. There wasn’t the famous pressure that Nadal applies on his rivals when he’s at his best. But he hasn’t been at his best for quite some time. The toll on his body from his style throughout his career is beginning to show more and more. After each good period comes a surprising and painful down time.
Nadal has shaken off the mental problems he had with Djokovic, after losing in six finals during 2011 and again in the Australian Open four months ago. The break he took to mend his hurt knees and shoulder did him good, especially up in the head. He didn’t really impress on the hard courts, but Monte Carlo, Barcelona and finally Madrid were a stark contrast to last year’s clay season which was about his Madrid and Rome losses to Djokovic.
It didn’t matter when Paris came along – Nadal is still the king there. But he didn’t have to go through Novak. He beat Andy Murray in the Semi Final and Roger Federer in that final. Nadal wasn’t his famous, impressive clay-self during the 2011 tournament, and don’t expect him to be uber-human again. He just wins, without extraordinary tennis.
But even not at his best, it’s nearly impossible to squeeze a set out of him on clay. He’s focused and seems healthy. He also knows he can meet Novak Djokovic only in the final. There’s no one else he has any reason to be afraid or even slightly fearful of on his road to a new record at the French Open.
I still believe when the two eventually meet, unless Federer stuns Djokovic on the way, it’s more up to the number one player in the world. But Djokovic isn’t his 2011 self for a number of reasons. I don’t see him picking up the pieces and being all conquering again suddenly now.