Nadal and Djokovic head French Open cast as Federer returns

By Martyn Herman
Reuters

By Martyn Herman

(Reuters) - For the first time in four years the big three in men's tennis will all be present at the French Open, all striving to etch another remarkable storyline in the red Parisian dirt.

That Spain's undisputed king of clay Rafael Nadal is hunting a record-extending and almost unbelievable 12th Roland Garros title is remarkable in itself.

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But then world number one Novak Djokovic arrives on the cusp of becoming the first man in the professional era to twice hold all four Grand Slam titles simultaneously.

And then there is Roger Federer, back from his self-imposed French Open exile since 2015, aiming to reclaim the title for a second time, a decade after the first.

As befitting this old city steeped in stories for the ages, the plotlines at this year's tournament run far deeper than the ambitions of the central characters.

A new order has emerged with fearless Greek Stefanos Tsistipas jumping to the head of a queue of hungry young talents seeking to barge the establishment to one side.

The 20-year-old Athenian has wins over both Federer and Nadal this year and will arrive without any of the mental baggage collected by so many others who have tried and failed to knock Nadal off his throne.

Austrian Dominic Thiem, who Nadal beat to win an 11th title last year, is knocking loudly on the door, while Germany's Alexander Zverev, Russian duo Daniil Medvedev and Karen Khachanov and exciting Canadians Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger Aliassime will add to the rich mixture.

Throw in rejuvenated former champion Stan Wawrinka, the one-man circus that is Australian Nick Kyrgios and the mercurial Italian Fabio Fognini and the next fortnight is unmissable.

Nadal's stranglehold on the French Open is one of the most incredible dominations ever in sport -- he has lost just two matches at Roland Garros since winning on debut in 2005.

NADAL VULNERABLE

This year injuries have hampered him and when he lost semi-finals in three successive claycourt events, Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid, it seemed he was vulnerable.

He swept to the title in Rome, though, last week against Djokovic and, as usual, he will start as the man to beat as he seeks an 18th Grand Slam title, two short of Federer's record.

"I think he is peaking involuntarily, and he has going to be so much better come the quarter-finals or semi-finals than he is now," former champion Mats Wilander, working as an analyst for Eurosport told Reuters.

"Maybe his claycourt season has been more of a rollercoaster ride this year but at the same time you can get away with that at the French Open over five sets."

Twelve months ago Djokovic, who turned 32 this week, arrived in Paris in a strange funk, still grappling with his game.

A quarter-final exit sparked a dramatic return to his best though and the Serb went on to win Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and this year's Australian Open, taking his Grand Slam haul to 15.

A slight dip followed his Melbourne success but after winning the Madrid title this month he will arrive in Paris confident of repeating his "Djoker Slam" of 2016. Victory over Andy Murray in the Roland Garros final meant he became the first man to hold all four majors at the same time since Rod Laver in 1969.

"That would be unbelievable, for me that would be a bigger deal than Rafa winning 12 French Opens," Wilander said.

Federer made his French Open debut in 1999 and but for Nadal would have bagged more than the one title he managed in 2009 when he beat Robin Soderling in the final to complete his career Slam.

The Swiss is 38 in August and this could be his final shot at repeating that feat.

As story twists go, that would take some beating.

(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar)

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