The Telegraph
Sunday , May 22 , 2011
Since 1st March, 1999
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All eyes are on Rafa and Novak

London: Rafa Nadal will arrive at Roland Garros without his air of invincibility as the seemingly unstoppable Novak Djokovic threatens to flatten the Spaniard’s bid to equal Bjorn Borg’s six French Open titles.

The Serb’s astonishing form during a 37-0 start to the year, including consecutive victories on clay for Djokovic over the world No. 1 , means that for the first time since 2005 Nadal is not the overwhelming favourite for the clay-court slam.

Since Nadal first bounded on to the scene with muscles bulging from his cut-off shirts and pirate shorts he has, for all but one match, looked unbeatable on Parisian brick-dust.

Every challenge thrown his way was answered in emphatic style as he stormed to five titles with a win loss record of 38-1, the sole defeat coming in an injury-hit 2009 against Sweden’s Robin Soderling when his body betrayed him.

With Borg’s record looming, however, Djokovic looks to have erected a barricade that even Nadal’s formidable claycourt armoury suddenly looks ill-equipped to dismantle. Successive victories over the Majorcan powerhouse in the finals of the Madrid and Rome Masters, having never beaten him on red dirt before, have changed the lay of the land.

When Nadal beat Djokovic to win last year’s US Open and complete his career Grand Slam it appeared inconceivable that less than nine months later he would be almost resigned to losing his world number one ranking to the surging Serb.

A ranking points gap measured in thousands has been whittled down to 400 and should Djokovic get his hands on the Coupe des Mousquetaires trophy for the first time he will find himself out on his own at the top.

With Djokovic and Nadal hogging the limelight ahead of the French Open, 2009 champion Roger Federer, finds himself in the rare position of arriving for the start of a Grand Slam as an “outsider” although the Swiss will still be dangerous.

On the other hand, in the women’s section, world number one Caroline Wozniacki, last year’s winner Francesca Schiavone, injury-troubled Kim Clijsters and suddenly resurgent Maria Sharapova all in with a shout.

Equally, they could all crash out in the early rounds on the Roland Garros clay such is the splintered nature of women’s tennis at the moment. With Venus and Serena Williams still ruled out with injury and Dinara Safina taking an indefinite break from the game, absolutely anything could happen in the west of Paris.

Meanwhile, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, the re-united old warhorses, would yet again carry India's title hopes at the Roland Garros, where they won their first and last Grand Slam title together.

Their partnership, that took the world tennis by storm in the late 90s, won India's first Grand Slam title in 1999. They had finished runners-up in the Australian Open in the same year.

Rohan Bopanna’s partnership with Pakistan's Aisam-ul-haq Quershi has done wonders for him and the duo would look to improve their record in Grand Slams. (Reuters)

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