(Getty Images)The French Open is underway. In both the men's and women's draw, there is one player who has been dominating the clay court season. On the men's side, it's Rafael Nadal, who always rises above the rest of the competition on this surface. However, it is not a forgone conclusion for Nadal in this tournament, because the top three players are all in great form.
Rafael Nadal arrived at the French Open, like every year, with strong results on the clay courts: he won in Monte-Carlo for the eighth straight time, for the seventh time in Barcelona, and for the sixth time in Rome. Over this streak of tournaments, he won twice over top ranked Novak Djokovic.
Last season, Nadal arrived in Paris after two consecutive losses to Djokovic. He had much less confidence entering the event, but yet again was crowned champion. This just shows why he is the clear favorite this year. Nadal is close to being labeled the greatest clay court player of all time. In his career, he has only lost one match at the French Open and has already won it six times. This year he won every clay court tournament he entered, unlike his struggle on the hard courts, where he hasn't won a title since 2010 in Tokyo.
Nadal seems to have even improved on the clay courts. Lately, he showed that he was still the outstanding defensive player who covers the entire court. Finder a winner against Nadal has become so difficult, as it seems he is glued to the ball. His opponents are becoming hesitant to approach the net, because he is hitting his passing shots so well. His style leads to his opponents to playing closer to the baseline and into numerous unforced errors.
What's striking is the intensity he puts into each point. Nadal never gives his opponent a rest, running them around the court until they begin to let up. Finally, he is much more efficient on clay when he plays offensively because the way his top spin shots bounce on impact with this surface. The ball gets faster when it touches the surface, leading to his opponents being late to the ball.
However, Nadal is not unbeatable. If there is a weakness to pinpoint, it is his longer shots, which are significantly weaker when he's attacked on a point. Despite his athleticism and his confidence he had entering the French Open, he could certainly be in danger against a player who takes advantage of this weakness by taking the ball earlier and advancing to the net. In both of Nadal's victories, Djokovic never tested this and it will be interesting to see if he changes his approach.
Nadal will still need to be wary of Djokovic, who is a potential matchup in the final, because he is the one player who has often found the solution against Nadal. While Nadal has bested him this season, it seemed that Djokovic wasn't fully involved. He seemed impatient and easily annoyed, not mentally prepared enough to give the necessary fight to beating Nadal on clay. But at the French Open, Djokovic will need to be fully committed mentally if he wants to win. As for the tactical side, he will have to shorten the points by approaching the net. If the two were to meet in the final, there's no doubt that Djokovic would have to overcome a both mental and physical battle, but Djokovic will be motivated for this challenge.