By Martyn Herman
For the first time in nearly a decade Rafa Nadal, the undisputed king of clay, will walk into Roland Garros this weekend facing legitimate claims to his French Open crown.
When he arrived in Paris a decade ago looking as though he had just bounded straight off a Mallorcan beach it heralded the start of an unprecedented era of dominance.
A record nine titles followed as left-hander Nadal buried many an ego under Parisian brick dust.
Approaching his 29th birthday though and with major questions about his form and confidence, talk of “end of eras” is not just the usual pre-tournament hyperbole.
World number one Novak Djokovic has been supreme throughout this year and is the clear favourite to claim the only grand slam title to elude the Serb.
And there are others circling too.
Briton Andy Murray, who learnt his craft on Spanish claycourts but had never won a title on the surface before back-to-back successes in Munich and Madrid this year, has thrust himself into contention.
Seventeen-times grand slam champion Roger Federer, for whom Nadal has been a recurring claycourt nightmare, will think a second French Open title is achievable, while Japan’s Kei Nishikori, Tomas Berdych, Stanislas Wawrinka, David Ferrer and even home favourite Gael Monfils will have roles to play in what promises to be the most open men’s title chase for years.
Defending champion Nadal will be seeded seventh, meaning a possible quarter-final clash with Djokovic, Murray or Federer, so if he is to notch up a 15th grand slam title it would arguably be his greatest achievement to date.
The big question on everyone’s lips is can he rediscover his mojo in the nick of time after a string of surprise losses.
Twice former champion Jim Courier believes the five-set format should ensure Nadal avoids an unceremoniously early exit, but thinks the Spaniard is vulnerable.
“For the first time in many years Nadal will not be the favourite going into Roland Garros,” the American said.
“That role is now firmly occupied by Novak Djokovic. Nadal is less vulnerable in Paris, given the best of five set format which allows him more time to problem solve than elsewhere but there are now guys in the locker room who see him as an opportunity rather than an immovable obstacle.”
Djokovic, who beat Nadal easily in Monte Carlo this year and has won every Masters 1000 event he has entered, as well as the Australian Open, is oozing confidence.
His dominance is reminiscent of 2011 when he won three quarters of a calendar-year grand slam, only missing out at the French Open when an inspired Federer beat him in the semi-final.
Dealing with suddenly being the favourite will be key for Djokovic who has twice fallen to Nadal in the final and in an epic semi-final in 2013.
“I want to keep it going as long as I can. I don’t want to think fear or everything else can be an obstacle and interrupt this streak,” he said of his 37-match winning run in Masters 1000 and grand slam play this year.