Rivals eye chinks in Nadal's claycourt armor

Wed May 21, 2014 10:04pm EDT
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By Martyn Herman

(Reuters) - Say it quietly but some chinks are appearing in the suit of armor Rafael Nadal usually wears on a claycourt as the Spaniard sets his sights on a ninth French Open title.

By his high standards the 28-year-old Spaniard has suffered a mediocre season on Europe's red dust courts so far and one or two players, chiefly Novak Djokovic, will arrive in Paris with genuine title hopes.

World number one Nadal has lost three matches on his beloved clay in the build-up to Roland Garros for the first time in a decade while others he normally sweeps aside on the surface have pushed him mighty close.

Fellow Spaniard David Ferrer, the man he beat to become the first man to win a single grand slam eight times last year, surprised him in Monte Carlo, then he lost to compatriot Nicolas Almagro in Barcelona and last weekend he was overwhelmed by Djokovic in the Italian Open final.

Even his 44th career title on clay, achieved in Madrid, earlier this month, was not totally convincing as he was outplayed for a set in the final by Kei Nishikori before the Japanese player retired with back problems.

That said, the alarm bells will not be ringing yet in the Nadal camp ahead of the grand slam which begins on Sunday.

Roland Garros remains a fortress for Nadal where he has suffered only one defeat since winning the title on his debut in 2005. Swede Robin Soderling is the only man to beat Nadal there and his record is an astonishing 59-1.

Beating him over five-sets on clay has proved almost impossible and once he gets into his stride on Paris's relative fast and bouncy claycourts he appears unstoppable.   Continued...

Rafael Nadal of Spain hits a return to Novak Djokovic of Serbia during their men's singles final match at the Rome Masters tennis tournament May 18, 2014. REUTERS/Giampiero Sposito