Nadal still the man to beat at the French Open

PARIS Sat May 24, 2014 10:44am EDT

Rafael Nadal of Spain hits a return to Roger Federer of Switzerland during their men's singles semi-final match at the Australian Open 2014 tennis tournament in Melbourne January 24, 2014.     REUTERS/Jason Reed

Rafael Nadal of Spain hits a return to Roger Federer of Switzerland during their men's singles semi-final match at the Australian Open 2014 tennis tournament in Melbourne January 24, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed

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PARIS (Reuters) - If this season's records are supposed to provide an indication to the man who will be crowned 'king of Roland Garros', Rafa Nadal's hopes of winning a record-extending ninth French Open title could be in jeopardy.

For the first time in a decade, the world number one lost three matches on red dirt in the build-up to the claycourt major and the Spaniard could have to beat all three conquerors - Nicolas Almagro, David Ferrer and Novak Djokovic - if he is to successfully defend his title on June 8.

Nadal also admitted to suffering jitters following his quarter-final exits at the Monte Carlo Masters and the Barcelona Open, by Ferrer and Almagro respectively, and those results proved that Nadal was no longer the indestructible force that he once was on clay.

While the results have offered hope to his opponents, they are also aware that Roland Garros is another story for Nadal.

The muscular left-hander carries a spine-chilling 59-1 record into this year's tournament, having lost his only match on the Parisian clay in 2009.

"I'm far behind Rafa and Novak. They are really above the other players," Swiss third seed and Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka, who won the Monte Carlo title, told a news conference.

"When they are really on the courts they are difficult to fight against."

Djokovic, who beat Nadal in the Rome Masters final in three sets last week, believes a grand slam is a special occasion.

"It's obviously different from the Rome tournament. It's a grand slam, a two-week long event, best-of-five (sets). Almost all of the players who are participating in the event have an extra motivation to perform well compared to the other events," the Serbian second seed, who has never won the French Open, said.

Besides Djokovic, whom he could meet in the final, Nadal has a possible semi-final match against Wawrinka, the man who defeated him in the Australian Open final.

Everyone has been warned, however, that Nadal is feeling better after a patchy start to the claycourt season.

"The dynamic is positive, it's true, so that's always important for the confidence. I felt that in Rome I was able to play without that anxiety that I played with in the first two tournaments and some moments in Madrid, too," Nadal explained.

Former world number one Roger Federer, who won the last of his record 17 grand slam titles at Wimbledon in 2012, believes he is in top shape.

"I feel very strong. That's how I feel. It's been really solid in practice; no setbacks in matches; I have been able to back them up time and time again," the Swiss fourth seed said.

The women's draw is a bit of a free-for-all behind the top favorites, holder Serena Williams and last year's runner-up Maria Sharapova, who could meet as early as the quarter-finals.

Williams, champion in 2002, had to wait 11 long years to win her second Suzanne Lenglen Cup last June but is determined not to hang around that long for a third triumph.

"I don't know what clicked or didn't click (on clay). I grew up on hard courts, and then when I turned 10 I played only clay until I turned pro," said Williams, who will draw level with Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert's haul of 18 majors if she wins in Paris.

"I'm really good now. I'm great. I feel like this is the only place I want to be."

(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Pritha Sarkar)

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