No Djoking around when it comes to the challenge of Nadal

May 21, 2015

The Djoker, Rafa or Muzza for Roland Garros title? Terrible nicknames aside, the French Open is going to come down to a battle between these three. However, you can count out Andy Murray, so that leaves a genuine fight between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic for the title. Why dismiss Andy Murray so quickly, because he has hit some big clay form with back to back clay titles in Munich and then in Madrid? Those were his first two clay titles of his entire career. If he had won those around five years, making those breakthroughs on the dirt earlier in his career, then he would have made more of a genuine challenger at Roland Garros at this stage.

But he didn’t and while current form should see him comfortably in the last eight, the only way that he will be taking the crown this year would be if he managed to avoid Novak Djokovic in the draw. That is unlikely, and whether it is at the semifinals or final, it wouldn’t matter as Murray is second best, hands down to Djokovic. Put Murray on his worst surface against the best in the world and the outcome isn’t likely to be positive for the Brit.

As for Djokovic, he will be out camping in Paris over the next fortnight -- camping because his performances are so intense (in tents, camping, geddit?) when it comes to the big shows on the Tour. Four ATP World Tour Masters 1000 titles this season? Eat that Murray. The Brit has never been to the final at Roland Garros and how ever is that going to stack up against the record of Djokovic, who has been to the final in two of the last three seasons?

But wait, talking about Murray not having won the French Open, neither has Djokovic. Well, here is the thing… Djokovic has won the last seven meetings on the bounce against Murray.

Not only that, Djokovic has posted a whopping 14-1 match record against top ten players this season. Roll back to his phenomenal 2011, compared that to this season, the Serbian is even better. Heading into the 2011 French Open, Djokovic posted a 37-0 match record for this season, this term it is 35-2. Versus the top ten in 2011 it was 13-0 at this stage of the season, this year it is 14-1. So pretty similar although he had won seven titles ahead of Roland Garros 2011 compared to the five this season.

Improved percentages for Djokovic

But Djokovic has raised his average number of aces per match considerably so, and is holding steady at the same 65% first serve percentage as he was at in 2011. So with the increase in aces, his accuracy off the first serve has increased so he is even more dangerous. He has also has raised the percentage of points won on both the first and second serve. Djokovic is currently on a 37-0 match streak in the highest level of tournaments, with twenty of those wins having come over top 10 opponents.

So to Nadal, against whom, Djokovic has lost both of his Roland Garros final appearances. Nadal is still the clay master of all time. But with just one title this year and a sketchy looking 25-9 match record, is he likely to return to his spiritual home this year and breeze out with yet another French Open title? Many were asking that last year after winning just two titles ahead of Roland Garros. He went through Murray in the semis and then outlasted Djokovic over four sets in the final.

However, the big factor for Nadal this year is that he will be ranked no higher than seventh in his quest to win his 10th French Open title. This is the first time in the last decade that he has failed to win an ATP World Tour clay title in Europe during the lead up to Roland Garros too. Tough draw, toughest title defense of his career and just one European clay title to his name in the last two seasons (Madrid 2014). It’s fair to say that he’s not at his very best anymore. However, if you put him into battle against Murray in Paris, you would back the Spaniard. Murray’s win over Nadal in the three-set final of Madrid this year will have no significance if they meet at the French Open.

If you put him against Djokovic at the French Open again, which way would you swing? Would you avoid Nadal who has a 10-3 advantage over Djokovic in 5-set meetings? It would be pretty tough to ignore that, as it proves that the bulk of Djokovic's triumphs over Nadal have come over three-set matches. But then only Djokovic can endure mentally and physically on the clay over the grueling five-set demands of the French Open as well as Nadal can. It’s going to be close. Very close.

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