AN IM­POS­SI­BLE TASK?

Stop­ping Nadal at Roland Gar­ros will take some do­ing

New Straits Times - - Sport -

THE video of Do­minic Thiem’s sur­prise win over Rafael Nadal last week in Rome will be in high de­mand for those har­bour­ing hopes of stop­ping the Spa­niard’s march to­wards a 10th French Open crown next week.

It will be about their only crumb of com­fort be­cause the 30-yearold, apart from that blip at the Foro Ital­ico, has looked back to his in­vin­ci­ble best on the red dust as he seeks to re­gain the crown he lost two years ago.

Watch­ing Nadal rack up 17 con­sec­u­tive vic­to­ries dur­ing which he swept through Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid was like turn­ing the clock back a decade when to chal­lenge him on a clay­court was an act of folly.

Un­til he faced the stylish young Aus­trian Thiem, whom he had dis­patched with ease the week be­fore in the Madrid fi­nal, Nadal had dropped only two sets dur­ing the Euro­pean clay­court swing.

In Madrid he trounced Nick Kyr­gios, David Gof­fin and French Open cham­pion No­vak Djokovic on his way to a record-ex­tend­ing 52nd ti­tle on his favoured clay.

No won­der it is hard to find any­one not back­ing him to claim ‘La Dec­ima’ in Paris.

“I think the only player you can re­ally be­lieve will win the French Open is Rafa,” Henri Le­conte, the last French­man to reach the fi­nal in 1988, said by tele­phone.

“I was with Boris Becker in Monte Carlo watch­ing him beat David Gof­fin and it was amaz­ing. No­body could with­stand the way he was play­ing. And I don’t think we need to con­sider the Rome de­feat be­cause he needed to re­lax a lit­tle for the French.”

Nadal with­drew in the third round at last year’s French Open with a wrist in­jury and in 2015, with his con­fi­dence at a low ebb, he was over­whelmed by Djokovic in the quar­ter-fi­nals.

His days of dom­i­na­tion looked over, but Nadal ended last sea­son early to fully re­cover from his wrist in­jury and since re­turn­ing in Jan­uary he looks a man re­born.

John McEn­roe, com­men­tat­ing for Eurosport in Paris, said it was also hard to look past Nadal for the ti­tle.

“It’s hard to say if he’s all the way back, he looks tremen­dous,” the Amer­i­can said. “It’s pretty darn close to his best. If he’s healthy and it sounds like he is, it’s the tough­est thing to do in tennis to beat him on clay.”

Nadal has a Tour-lead­ing 36 match wins, sits top of the ATP Race stand­ings and is back at num­ber four in the rank­ings.

He has re­mained fiercely loyal to his ca­reer-long coach, un­cle Toni, but has added fel­low Mal­lor­can Car­los Moya to his camp, pepped up his serve and has re­dis­cov­ered the length, power and pen­e­tra­tion of his mighty fore­hand — the key weapon in his nine French ti­tles.

“He has worked on hit­ting the ball harder this year,” Le­conte, also work­ing for Eurosport at Roland Gar­ros, said.

“He went back to the old rac­quet and has more con­trol, which is why maybe he can hit it harder. He’s maybe hit­ting less spin. He’s found some dif­fer­ent an­gles. Even the back­hand is back.

“To beat him over five on clay, it’s the tough­est ask in tennis. It must feel like 10 sets you have to win. You’ll have to play the best tennis of your life.”

It is ac­tu­ally Nadal’s best start to the Euro­pean clay sea­son since 2010 when he won all three tour­na­ments he played in the build-up to Paris. The Spa­niard puts this year’s resur­gence down to the de­ci­sion he took last Oc­to­ber to rest.

“What helped me is that I was able to prac­tice as much as I wanted, be­cause I was healthy enough,” Nadal said.

“I prac­tised for one month and a half very well, very strong with a lot of hours and do­ing the stuff that I re­ally wanted to do and that some­times my body doesn’t al­low me to do.”

World No 7 Thiem showed the blue­print for beat­ing Nadal with a bril­liant two-set per­for­mance, red-lin­ing through­out a con­test that saw him crunch one of his trade­mark singe-handed back­hands at 100mph.

Le­conte, how­ever, says the French Open rep­re­sents an en­tirely dif­fer­ent chal­lenge.

“Can any­one play like that for four, five, six hours?” he said. “That’s the chal­lenge. It’s for­mi­da­ble.” Reuters

Rafael Nadal looks to be back at his in­vin­ci­ble best on the red dust as he seeks to re­gain the French Open crown he lost two years ago.

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