Men's draw: Nadal avoids key contenders
With 79 wins and just two defeats at Roland-Garros, is an 11th title inevitable for the Spaniard?
Michael Beattie: The long and short of it is this: it's Rafael Nadal. The first man to win 10 Grand Slam titles at a single event, a phenom on clay, and seemingly only becoming more dominant. Last year he surged to the feted 'Decima' without so much as dropping a set - 20 in all (Pablo Carreno Busta retired in the second set of their quarter-final) without playing so much as a tiebreak. And he's not stopped there: after defending titles in Monte-Carlo and Barcelona, he became the first man in ATP history to win 50 consecutive sets on a single surface en route to the quarter-finals in Madrid, and capped his preparations with a hard-earned eighth title in Rome. Who'd bet against him?
Kate Battersby: It’s at times like this that I feel actively sorry for Nadal. Declaring him “invincible” is actually to belittle his achievements at Roland-Garros, not glorify them. There’s a hoary old adage among followers of sport – when an individual or a team is an overwhelming favourite, the other contenders merely “make up the numbers”. It’s a phrase currently much in vogue hereabouts in the 16th arrondissement, and it succeeds in disparaging not only Nadal but also the 127 men alongside him in the main draw. By all means, such is the scale of his achievements that were he to be defeated, it would be a bigger talking point than if he were to capture an 11th title here. But by labelling him “invincible”, it is as if he would achieve nothing by winning.
Beattie: I take your point, and the very last thing anyone should do is underestimate the super-human levels of dedication, determination and sheer brilliance that a 13-year hegemony over one of the sport's four crown jewels must entail. Inevitably, we joke about him 'simply needing to turn up' when the fact remains he must win seven five-set matches on the sport's most demanding surface in order to defend his title once more. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than the man himself: to hear Nadal in press on Friday was to listen to a competitor who lives for the crunch moments, almost grateful to have been pushed hard in Rome by Fabio Fognini, Novak Djokovic and Sascha Zverev in turn. But it is that fire for the fight and single-minded chase for win after win (after win) that leaves me thinking there are few players who could compete with Rafa in this form, never mind beat him.
Battersby: Well, yes. That much we know. And that is precisely why his achievements are clouded by that word “invincible”. His 79 match wins to date at Roland-Garros did not come about by an act of God. Whisper it, but there are some days when even he does not play as well as on other days. One of the extraordinary elements about the sheer consistency of the super-elite is how few bad days they have on court, and how rarely off-court issues appear to impact their game. It doesn’t take tennis genius to spot that it is statistically unlikely for Nadal to lose here; but if – for reasons known or unknown to observers – he has an off day, and an opponent plays brilliantly, then defeat is possible. The defence calls their star witness in this regard: Robin Soderling.
Beattie: Ah, Soderling. That was a day - and in the fourth round, of all places. It was the perfect storm for the Spaniard those nine years ago: a cold, wet day in Paris; an opponent who hammers flat drives off his high-bouncing strokes; and yes, a sub-par performance, followed by a lengthy spell on the sidelines to rest his creaking knees. The thing is, the opponents who offer the biggest threat to Nadal all find themselves in the opposite half of the draw. Dominic Thiem, who beat Rafa in Madrid, Sascha Zverev, coming off arguably his best clay-court season, and Novak Djokovic, showing glimpses of his fighting finest, are all in the bottom half alongside longer shots such as Gael Monfils, David Goffin, Kei NIshikori and Stan Wawrinka. Meanwhile, the highest seed sharing Nadal's quarter is Kevin Anderson, with Juan Martin del Potro, Marin Cilic and John Isner the projected semi-final opponents - and Nadal has never lost a semi-final or final here...
Battersby: And therefore…what, exactly? It hasn’t happened yet, so it cannot happen at all? How right you are. Let’s issue an immediate alert to all the male players – except Nadal The Invincible, of course – to go home now as their existence in the draw is futile. Or we could proclaim the alternative: that Nadal is living, breathing, flesh and blood, with the capacity to fail. Let us grant that he is flawed and vulnerable in the manner of all humankind – and in so doing celebrate his achievements all the more. The man who lifts the Coupe des Mousquetaires on Sunday 10 June will not do so because it was inevitable, or predestined, or any other silly linguistic convenience. If that man is Nadal, his 11th victory will be astonishing precisely because he is not invincible, not because he is.