The last time Rafael Nadal did not reach a final during the clay-court swing was way back in 2004. After three straight semifinal losses, the ongoing Rome Masters (Italian Open) is the 17-time Major champion’s final chance before the French Open to ensure he wouldn’t repeat it.
But fellow Spaniard and four-time Grand Slam singles champion Arantxa Sanchez Vicario still believes that Nadal remains the man to beat in Paris.
“Nadal is the favourite. I think he will be okay,” said Sanchez Vicario, who is in Bengaluru as the event ambassador for the TCS World 10k.
“People are used to Rafa winning most of the clay-court tournaments. But when it comes to Grand Slams like the French Open, which he has won 11 times, the first few matches are going to be important. From there he will be in perfect shape to defend his title.”
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However, Roger Federer throwing his hat in after having skipped clay for two consecutive years has made it interesting, Sanchez Vicario felt.
“Roger is a player who can play anywhere. Put him here [pointing to the floor] and he will play. He is a favourite even if not with the top ones like Nadal and Djokovic. He knows he has to be more patient because the surface gets slower but he is a big contender to win, anywhere.”
On the women’s side though she couldn’t zero in on one name, considering how open the field is, with Simona Halep, Kiki Bertens and Petra Kvitova just to name a few.
“It is very open after the domination of Serena Williams. In 19 different tournaments, only Kvitova won two times. The rest were all different. It’s an unusual situation. Also, I think Serena still has the passion. She is getting injured a little more but if she is at the top of her game she can be a contender. I admire her for continuing to play after becoming a mum. The longer she is in the game the better.”
The women’s game today is in fact nothing like how it was in Sanchez Vicario’s heydey in the mid-1990s when she, along with Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, established a clear rivalry and pecking order.
At the 1989 French Open, she beat Graf in the final to become the first Spanish woman to win a Major and also the youngest women’s singles winner at Roland Garros at 17.
“Before that final, a journalist asked me how many games I was going to win” she recollected. “Graf barely lost a match  and I beat her when she was at her top. That started a rivalry. Sanchez-Graf…Graf-Sanchez was like Nadal-Federer-Djokovic... like Chris Evert-Navratilova. And while Graf was there I was able to go up to No.1 and that says a lot.”