Cutting right to the chase, yes, that’s what I think. I know many of you reading didn’t put much weight into the benefits of the No. 2 vs. the No. 3 seed, but I did. And it’s especially important for Rafael Nadal.
What’s critical is being the second seed 100% assures Nadal won’t run into the only player with the best, most realistic chance of beating him in Paris until the very last day. Of course I’m talking about World No. 1 Novak Djokovic who beat Rafa twice last year on clay (Nadal’s got him back this season).
Sure, had Nadal lost on Monday or had the ranking numbers not worked out as they did, Rafa could still have ended up on the other side of the draw to Djokovic as a three seed, but now he doesn’t have 4-5 days of worry. Rafa’s and his armada pretty much know he’s booked into the finals.
And in that final if it is Djokovic just imagine the circumstances for the Serb on that day. Djokovic will have to withstand the pressure of finishing off the “Djoker Slam”, something that no player has done since Rod Laver in the 60s, and to do it he’ll likely have to beat the greatest clay courter of all time and someone he’s already lost twice to in straight sets this clay season. And if that’s not enough, Djokovic, who’s never won the French or even been to the final, just isn’t performing at the lofty levels he was a year ago.
Had this been just another Slam for Novak or if he could meet Nadal in the semifinals, I’d give him a much, much better chance. He’s got wins over Nadal (14 of them!), his game matches up well with the Spaniard and he’s hungry. But in a pressure cooker of a final, I just don’t know how he’s going to get three sets off Rafa with all that’s going to be at stake.
Djokovic’s obviously done well in big matches before (Davis Cup, Slam finals, etc), but there’s little that can prepare him for this. It has to be a different kind of weight on your shoulders. More nerves, more expectations and thoughts of “will I ever have this chance again?” Ask Roger Federer who failed. Ask Pete Sampras who failed. Even Rafael Nadal failed. Is Djokovic really going to do one better than them?
Novak can catch fire at the French. But often the first two matches are lopsided affairs against qualifiers or lesser knowns. Maybe in the third or fourth round he’ll play someone decent, before the quarterfinals and semifinals. So he’ll have 2-3 matches to get his game back up to form against worthy competition before Nadal. Is that even enough time? We’ll see.
As for Nadal, after his sweep of the red clay season (again), he’s the overwhelming favorite to win a seventh French Open so he didn’t need this extra help. But he’ll gladly take it.
With Nadal cemented at two, Federer will be the big floater when the draw is released on Friday. Federer’s best chance now is to land in the Djokovic section because he’s not beating Nadal either. There are really a handful of guys who can takes even take sets at this point, outside of Federer and Novak.
Handicapping the rest of the field:
Andy Murray has been struggling this clay season so it’s a longshot he’ll return to the semifinals.
David Ferrer is capable, but capable against just about anyone other than Rafa.
The Frenchmen of JW Tsonga, Gael Monfils, Gilles Simon and Richard Gasquet have tons of talent but they don’t have the belief.
John Isner is a threat on any surface but Rafa won’t have to worry about a rematch until the quarterfinals, a round Isner’s not going to reach.
Tomas Berdych has been dangerous but does anyone really think the Czech can mentally keep it together to win three sets against Nadal? Nope.
Milos Raonic could be a late week one, early week two fourth round opponent at the earliest, but it’s a hard to say he can even win three matches and get there.
There are other guys like Nicolas Almagro, Fernando Verdasco, Janko Tipsarevic, Ivo Karlovic, Juan Monaco and David Nalbandian who all can maybe get hot for a period, but best-of-5 is Nadal’s best friend here.
The only guy other than Djokovic with a good shot of beating Rafa is Juan Martin Del Potro and there’s just a 25% chance he lands as a possible Nadal quarterfinal foe. And to play Rafa in the semifinals he may have to beat Federer or Murray – I’d have to also wonder how healthy the oft-injured Del Potro would even be at that late stage!
Del Potro played Nadal tough in a four set loss in the Davis Cup final last year – that was also the last time Nadal has lost a set on red clay. And he’s stunned Rafa on the big stage before. But since returning from that wrist injury two years ago, Del Potro hasn’t beaten any of the Big 3.
So barring an injury to Nadal, a surprise surface change to blue or girlfriend or gambas problems it really looks like everyone’s just playing for second in Paris, again. But as Rafa will tell you, Being second is better than third, no?
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