French Open: Nadal could meet Djokovic in quarterfinals

  • AFP, Paris
  • Updated: May 23, 2015 15:01 IST

"Not nice, Maria," Toni Nadal joked in a French radio interview in Paris on Friday.

Or maybe Uncle Toni wasn't joking. As defending women's champion at the French Open, Maria Sharapova had the honors of pulling the names out of the trophy for the draw of this year's men's tournament.

The result of her handiwork? Toni's nephew Rafael Nadal, the nine-time French Open champion, is in the same quarter of the draw as Novak Djokovic, who is the rightful favorite this year to win the only Grand Slam singles title he lacks.

That could mean a match in the quarterfinals with the gravitas of a final. That did not feel like much of a birthday present for Djokovic, who turned 28 on Friday, and it might not feel like much of a birthday present for Nadal if they play on June 3, which would be his 29th birthday.

Neither man seemed terribly surprised by the turn of events.

"I would love to arrive to that match; that's my reaction, no?" Nadal said. "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're going to have two days to talk about it."

If it sounds like Nadal, seeded a career-low sixth here, was dodging a question, he was not. In fact, he dodged nothing of significance Friday, certainly not his unprecedented struggles on clay this season. He has lost five times on his favorite surface, more times than he lost on clay in the five-year period from 2006 to 2010.

Nadal's frankness in times of doubt and suffering continues to set him apart from most champions, even if he has often been quicker to acknowledge his troubles than his dominant phases.

"I said a lot of time in my career, I'm not gonna lie if it's not 100 percent necessary," he said, sparking laughter in the press room with his caveat. "And that's it. I don't know if it's good or bad, but at the end of the day you can lie here but you cannot lie on the court."

The truth so far in 2015 is that Djokovic is back in a league of his own, sweeping nearly all before him on hard courts and clay: winning the Australian Open and four Masters 1000 tournaments in Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo and, most recently, Rome.

"He's head and shoulders the best player in the world," said Brad Gilbert, the coach and analyst. "He's maybe playing better tennis than anyone I've seen play the game."

That is quite a statement in an era when Roger Federer is still ranked No. 2 and when memories of his best days are still fresh. But Djokovic is a suffocating presence when he is hugging the baseline, making the court look intimidatingly small to his opponents, who can find no apparent weakness.

Djokovic has been a ruthless finisher this year. He was pushed to a third set in three matches in Miami and won those decisive sets 6-1, 6-0 and 6-0. In Rome, he was pushed to a third set in three matches, too, and won the decisive sets 6-3, 6-3 and 6-1. That is a reflection of great fitness and of great confidence - and though the oft-injured, oft-battered Nadal does look fit, at this stage, his self-belief clearly has a few dents and scratches.

Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova, President of the Federation Francaise de Tennis Jean Gachassin and Spanish tennis player Rafael Nadal pose after the draw for the first round of the Roland Garros 2015 French Open Tennis championships in Paris. (AFP PHOTO)

Feeling shaky and feeling drained of hope and desire are different matters. Nadal still looks hungry, even after nine titles on the red clay of Paris and a career record here of 66-1 that looks like a typo.

"He always had a big title on clay coming into Roland Garros and it wasn't the case this year, so it is probably a bit different approach for him," Djokovic said Friday. "But regardless of that, I think he still is playing his best tennis on clay courts in Paris. He has lost only one match in his entire career here, and I think that speaks enough."

Djokovic has beaten Nadal 20 times (and five times on clay) but never at Roland Garros, where the only man to beat Nadal remains Robin Soderling, who did so in the fourth round in 2009.

If any place is Nadal's restorative spa, this is the place. From the moment Nadal arrived Wednesday, he has been logging the hours on the main Philippe Chatrier Court and swatting the ball with the intensity of a man who is not simply tuning up for the real thing but trying to make significant gains in practice.

"When you lose more than other years, it's obvious the confidence is a little bit less," Nadal said, adding that "since January, day after day, I think I improved a lot."

Djokovic is not Nadal's only challenge. Though his first-round opponent, the French wild card Quentin Halys, casts a small shadow, Nadal would next face either Nicolás Almagro or Alexandr Dolgopolov.

He could play Grigor Dimitrov, the No. 10 seed, in the fourth round and Andy Murray may be waiting in the semifinals.

But Nadal has always seemed to enjoy the chase more than the meal, which is surely one of the big reasons why he has nine French Open trophies.

On Friday, shortly after the draw, he was back on the Chatrier court, practicing with the American Donald Young. At one stage, Young hit a flashy drop shot and then a flashier passing shot on the run that Nadal stabbed for a winner. Young shrieked, grinned and wheeled in the red clay to share the fun with Nadal.

But there would be no eye contact. The Spaniard already had his back turned and was returning briskly to the baseline. More than ever, he is all business, but anybody who has watched Djokovic lately knows even that may not be enough.

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