LONDON (Reuters) - Rafa Nadal used to mess with his head, ruffle his feathers and on occasions even make him cry, but no-one will be happier to see the Mallorcan rekindle his love affair with Roland Garros more than Roger Federer.
When the French Open begins on Sunday the men’s drawsheet will have a familiar look with Swiss world number one Federer and his claycourt nemesis separated by 126 other players -- six wins each away from an eighth grand slam final clash.
Twelve months ago Nadal’s lock on Roland Garros was cracked by Sweden’s Robin Soderling in a stunning fourth-round loss and Federer slid through the door to claim the elusive major he craved.
It completed his career slam and as the Swiss marched on to claim a record breaking 15th major at Wimbledon a few weeks later, Nadal watched from afar in Spain, the tendonitis in his knees casting doubts over his career and his off-court harmony shattered by his parents split.
Suddenly a classic rivalry that had elevated men’s tennis to supreme new heights looked in jeopardy.
Nadal’s aura faded to such an extent that after returning in Montreal he failed to win a title for the rest of the year and when he was outgunned by Briton Andy Murray in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open this year many thought his swashbuckling days were behind him at the age of 23.
Thankfully, talk of his demise was greatly exaggerated and the reassuring feel of red dust under his feet has re-ignited Nadal’s engines and after dropping just 14 games on his way to a sixth successive Monte Carlo title last month the world knew that Rafa was back.
Not that Federer, who will arrive in Paris as top seed but without a title since the Australian Open, ever doubted it.
“I expected him to come back strong, for me he was never gone,” Federer said last week in Madrid before they met in a final for the first time in more than a year -- Nadal’s victory taking him past Andre Agassi’s record of 17 Masters titles.
“I knew that once the French and once the claycourt season came around he was would be very hard to beat. He has come up with some incredible stuff recently. He’s Rafa Nadal after all.”
Whereas many of his 13 previous defeats against Nadal gnawed away at Federer’s ego, the Swiss was sanguine after losing in the Spanish capital, clearly pleased to have his sparring partner on the other side of the net again.
Federer needs the challenge of a fit and firing Nadal and while last year’s French Open title confirmed him as the greatest all-round player to wield a racket, he would have loved to have won it by beating the Spaniard.
Nadal, who will have plenty of Spanish company, not least the dangerous David Ferrer and Fernando Verdasco, could hardly be in better shape as he arrives in Paris looking to reclaim the Coupe de Mousquetaires.
The 23-year-old’s hat-trick of claycourt titles at Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid was unprecedented and he still looks to have plenty in the tank.
His serve is much improved this season and his backhand is now being hit flatter and harder while the forehand is still the spitting, snarling beast that it always was.
Nadal, however, is not one to big himself up, playing down his favorite’s tag last week.
“I don’t think I am,” he said. “I‘m very happy with what has happened up to now, I’ve got back to my best level and that’s the important thing. Who knows what will happen in a week and a half or two weeks, there is more than one contender, there are many contenders.”
Few of those look capable of stopping him.
World number three Novak Djokovic has lost twice to Verdasco in the run-up, number four Murray has suffered an alarming dip since losing to Federer in the Australian Open final and France’s main hope, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, has struggled during the European claycourt swing.
Injuries have already bitten into the men’s draw with Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro and Russian Nikolay Davydenko both sidelined. Parisian clay has many pitfalls but few would bet against anything other than a return to business as usual for the world’s top two players.
Editing by Miles Evans