The pinnacle of the clay court season is almost upon us starting on Monday. Up until Madrid the clay court season have been very predictable and Rafa had been dominating even more then he did previous years, winning three straight tournaments including two Masters Series events. The win by Roger in the Madrid finals was not only important for his career but also to keep the clay court season interesting. If Roger had not beaten Rafa the preview to the French Open of 2009 would have been a lot less interesting. Even though Madrid was played in slightly different conditions then the French Open, I believe it was a crucial event in terms of bringing much needed excitement to the clay court season and giving both Roger and Djokovic confidence going into Roland Garros.
I don’t believe Djokovic have much of a chance at beating Rafa on clay. If he couldn’t do it in conditions that favored him he won’t be able to do it in less favorable conditions. Roger on the other hand has a chance. The manner in which he beat Rafa in Madrid suggests that he has a chance to win his first French Open and complete the career grand slam. If he had won in three close sets I would have said his chances did not improve much. He beat Rafa in Hamburg 2007 in three sets, 2-6, 6-2, 6-0 and still lost in four sets in the final of Roland Garros. I didn’t see that match but I think Roger was particularly impressive in Madrid and it gives him a chance to finally break the deadlock that Rafa has over Roland Garros.
Don’t get me wrong, Rafa is still the favorite. You don’t win four consecutive French Open titles and dominate the clay court season without going in as the favorite. But since the start of Madrid I have just been sensing a little doubt setting into the mind of Rafa, however small an amount of doubt. Whether it is enough doubt to affect his chances of winning a fifth straight French Open title and thereby breaking Bjorn Borg’s record, remains to be seen. Rafa has made it clear that he didn’t feel the Madrid tournament is ideal preparation for him going into the French, and losing his last match before the French Open wouldn’t have been ideal either. But as we have seen before, this may have no effect on another title run for the Spanish Bull.
Yet I can’t help but feel that this year will be the most challenging year for him so far, as history beckons. Djokovic is playing better then ever on clay, and Roger has come to the party just in time. And he has come to the party in grand fashion. So if he is going to win the French Open I’d say this year is probably his best chance yet. Just the way he has come back from adversity and disposing of Rafa the way he did is the reason I come to that conclusion. Even though the pressure is increasing on him to add the one grand slam title that has been eluding him to his already impressive record in grand slam titles, I feel like Roger’s mentality going into Paris is the best it has yet been. He is showing a certain calmness and self-assurance that will certainly add to Rafa’s doubt.
But aside from that the tactics he showed at Madrid is what impressed me. I discussed that in detail in my in depth analysis of the match. I think Roger may have finally learned what he must do against Rafa on clay. He may have finally accepted the fact that he is not the dominant player he once was and stopped putting all that pressure on himself. There is a difference between beating Rafa before the French Open like he did in Hamburg and actually making a turning point in your career. Even though Roger was a dominant force in the past he was still a stubborn player against Rafa, refusing to change his game especially on clay. If my intuition serves me well I think he has finally gotten over his stubbornness and made the much needed shift.
I don’t have any doubt that Roger can beat Rafa on clay when it really matters, he is that good. But he would have to be at his very best and it will still be a very close match. He would also need to stick his pride in his pocket and be willing to change the game plan he has used in the past. At Roland Garros it will be harder to play the kind of attacking game he did in Madrid, so it will be another test. If Madrid is anything to go by he will pass that test and possibly win his first title in Paris, establishing himself once and for all as the best player of the modern era. The draw for the French Open will come out tomorrow morning, after which i will do the second part of my preview and make predictions for the results of the current top ten best clay court players.