PARIS – Can Rafael Nadal win his tenth French Open title? That's the question on everyone's mind, especially after Friday's draw ceremony revealed Nadal could play No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals.
Nadal's reaction? Let's take it one match at a time.
"I would love to arrive to that match," Nadal told reporters at his pre-tournament press conference. "That's my reaction, no? That match is in [the] quarterfinals and I didn't start the first round yet, no? I don't see an easy way to arrive to that match. I am focused on the things that I have to do before that. If I arrive to that match, we going to have two days to talk about."
For the first time in his career, Nadal arrives in Paris without a European clay-court final. In his five lead-up events he has lost to Fabio Fognini, Stan Wawrinka, Andy Murray and Djokovic. Meanwhile, the World No. 1 has looked infallible, going 10–0 on clay and winning Monte Carlo and Rome. He goes into Paris as the odds-makers favorite to win his first French Open title and complete his career Slam.
"It's not terrible, but if we compare with other years, obviously looks bad," Nadal said, in reference to his pre-French Open results. "That's always gonna happen when you achieve a lot in the past. Always going to have the comparisons, but that's it."
But have people been too quick to write off Nadal's chances of defending his title? Two-time French Open champion Maria Sharapova says it's "disrespectful" to discount the chances of a man who has won this tournament nine of the ten years he's played. "An individual loses a few matches, someone that's won this event, what is it nine times, I believe? To put so many question marks, I almost think it's a little bit disrespectful.
"He's an incredible champion, and he has no reason to be here doing it again, and his will and motivation to keep doing it and to keep proving to himself that he can do it again is pretty remarkable. It's actually been a little bit sad, because if I was in his shoes I'd be a pretty accomplished and satisfied player. Here he is just grinding away and proving everyone wrong."
Nadal's great rival Roger Federer has been adamant about his belief that Nadal is still the favorite to win in Paris. "He's very difficult to beat unless you can prove me the contrary," Federer said. "Except for [Robin] Soderling [in 2009]. I don't really know who else can do it. I'm waiting to see."
This isn't the first time Nadal has come into Paris with some brow-raising losses. Last year he lost to David Ferrer, Nicolas Almagro and Djokovic, while winning the Madrid Open after Kei Nishikori held a lead but had to retire due to injury. But taking two sets off Nadal is one thing. Only Soderling has ever been able to take three sets off Nadal on clay.
"With five sets he has even more leeway and margin and the confidence that no one else has here at Roland Garros," Federer said. "I think the players are fully aware of this. I think that's why this is really [benefiting] Rafa."
Andy Murray backed Djokovic as the favorite based on his recent form, with caveats. "I think Novak for me goes into a tournament as the favorite now, but, on that court Rafa is—his record is ridiculous," Murray said. "It's completely possible that he gets out there and feels great, especially if he gets himself into the tournament and wins his first few matches. I mean, he's going to feel better and better.
"He obviously loves the conditions here, although the courts this week have been extremely slow. "If it gets warmer and starts to speed up, I think obviously he loves the conditions here. It would be stupid to write him off or suggest that he can't win the event or won't win the event."
Nadal admits his confidence is lower this year than in year's past but he's improving match-by-match.
"Since January, day after day, I think I improved a lot," he said. "I'm having less bad days than in the first few months. I am a little bit more consistent, I feel. Let's try my best here. Let's try to play a great tournament here. I think I can do it. Then do it is another thing."