ROME - For the past 10 years Rafael Nadal has been virtually unbeatable at Roland Garros, but that could all change at this year's French Open as the Spaniard's woes continue on clay.
Nadal , stunned in the final of the Madrid Masters a week ago by Britain's Andy Murray, has won only one tournament -- Buenos Aires -- on his favourite surface this year. Having already lost twice this year to Italian Fabio Fognini, Serbian rival Novak Djokovic and Murray, the 14-time Grand Slam winner was eliminated from the quarter-finals of the Italian Open by Stan Wawrinka, who also beat Nadal to the Australian Open title in 2014.
If Nadal 's defeat to Murray was confirmation that things were not quite going to plan, his failure to reach the latter stages in Rome means he will likely miss out on a top four seeding for Roland Garros. Seedings for the second Grand Slam of the year, which begins on May 24, will be announced by the French Open organisers shortly, and Nadal is unlikely to be given the luxury of a top four seeding, meaning he could meet one of his main rivals as early as the quarter-finals. Barring 2009, when Sweden's Robin Soderling upset him in Paris, Nadal has won the French Open every year since 2005, stretching his record to nine titles in 2014 last year with victory over Djokovic.
It goes without saying Nadal 's struggles have not gone unnoticed. Djokovic overwhelmed Swiss Roger Federer to defend his Italian Open title on Sunday. Although neither have dismissed Nadal , they admit his virtually barren run on clay has surprised them. "I think to be honest it surprised everybody considering his record on clay courts over the years," said Djokovic. "It's something that hasn't happened in the last ten years. But he's human as well and does have his periods where he's not confident or not winning matches.
"This is the surface that always allowed him to regain his confidence if he was losing more on hard courts than clay courts. Whenever he would get to the clay season he would win matches and then feel like he's back on the right path. "This year is quite different and it will be interesting to see how he bounces back for Roland Garros, the most successful tournament he has ever played in his career." Given Nadal 's record in Paris, few would write off the Spaniard -- even if he has to meet a top seed like Djokovic as early as the quarter-finals.
Federer, meanwhile, said Nadal has the ability to dispel doubts about his clay court game and battle his way to a 10th title in the French capital. "You may be shocked to hear that at times we doubt ourselves, and anybody who says something else is lying to you," said Federer. "But that to me is no news, that's just normal for any player out there. It seems that he's doing just fine and regardless of what anybody says to me, he is the favourite for the French Open.
"That guy has only lost once in 10 years, there's no way past that guy being the favourite for that tournament." Following a defeat to Djokovic that has underlined the Serbian's hot form heading into Paris, Federer refused to budge on the Nadal question. "You cannot take away the last 10 years," said Federer.
"It's going to be the best of five sets, we know how tough Rafa is physically and mentally. He is the favourite still, at least to me... it's all talk. "In the end, it's the racket that's going to do the talking." Given the huge expectations on Nadal , the Spaniard has reacted as champions only know how: defiantly.
"I don't know what's going to happen (at the French Open), but I'm going to fight," said Nadal . Djokovic, who has never beaten Nadal at Roland Garros, joked that avoiding him at any stage would be a bonus. "I've never won against him at Roland Garros, so if I get the chance to play somebody else it would be better, honestly!"