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Nadal's perfect record under threat in Paris PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 26 May 2008

REUTERS, LONDON- A blistered foot and aching muscles will do nothing to quell Rafael Nadal's yearning to preserve his 100 percent record at the French Open.

Just when it seemed that the Spanish juggernaut may be slowing down on his favourite surface, thanks to a hectic schedule and a rare defeat, Nadal reaffirmed his king of clay status by lifting the Hamburg Masters title last weekend.

He picked up the only Masters event on clay to have eluded him with back-to-back victories over the sport's other heavyweights, Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic and world number one Roger Federer, thus gaining the psychological advantage before action begins at Roland Garros on Sunday.

The win allowed him to switch his focus from his complaints about this season's crammed claycourt calendar, in which three Masters tournaments were squeezed into four weeks, to the defence of his Paris crown.

"How am I not going to have strength and desire to play Roland Garros? It's the climax of the season on clay," the triple French Open champion, who blamed his defeat by fellow Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero at the Rome Masters earlier this month on a blistered foot, told Reuters.

SUPREMACY THREATENED

"Yes, it's been made more difficult by those who make the calendar, but fine, even though I couldn't be at a hundred percent in Rome I'm playing well and I aim to get to Roland Garros in as good shape as possible."

While Nadal will be aiming to extend his own record and become the first man to win four French Open trophies in four visits to Paris, he knows that his supremacy is under serious threat this year.

For the first time, there is more than one bona fide rival lurking close by and ready to wrest his crown away.

Since 2005, the Federer-Nadal duopoly had become a familiar sight in men's tennis.

Nadal reigned supreme in Paris while Federer grabbed everything else. The pair also contested the Paris and Wimbledon finals in each of the last two years.

After 11 successive majors in which the winner's trophy either had Nadal or Federer's name engraved on it, Djokovic muscled in on the act in January to lift the Norman Brookes Cup in Melbourne.

The Serb turned 21 on Thursday and would like nothing better than to celebrate his coming of age birthday by proving that he is no one-hit wonder.

"Sure, Rafa is the number one favourite. Winning three in a row at the French Open is a real achievement for such a young guy," said Djokovic, whose build-up has included victory in Rome.

"But this year is a quite different situation and it's going to be interesting to see who is going to win it."

Djokovic may be ranked third in the world behind Federer and Nadal, but he is the number one in what the ATP calls the Race, which measures only performances since the start of the season.

Like the Swiss master, Djokovic boasts an all-court game but more importantly, he has built up his endurance over the past 12 months and this may turn out to be his main weapon on the slow red dirt over the next fortnight.

Federer, surprisingly, is a distant third on the Race list and as the season approaches the halfway mark, his 2008 trophy cupboard is looking unexpectedly bare.

The winner of 12 grand slams has won a solitary title in a low-key Estoril event, and that too because his final opponent retired midway through the contest.

For a man who had won 53 titles by the end of 2007, this year has proved to be a tortured affair and his bid to win the one slam missing from his collection looks rather bleak.

He was laid low by glandular fever earlier this season and although the Swiss has refused to blame the virus for his loss of form, he has not been the same player since.

Hence he will arrive in Paris in the unfamiliar role of being an outsider for the title and summing up his feelings, he said: "Hopefully it will be a different story in Paris."

As for the other 125 players making up the field, getting their hands on the trophy is likely to remain a distant dream.

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