MADRID: In this May 14, 2017, file photo, Rafael Nadal plays a shot in the final of the Madrid Open tennis tournament against Dominic Thiem, in Madrid, Spain. Heading into the French Open, the men at Nos. 1-5 in the ATP rankings are all 30 or older for the first time in history. — AP

PARIS: With the world’s top five filled for the first time by players over 30, Rafael Nadal is poised to tighten the old guard’s Grand Slam grip by capturing an unprecedented 10th French Open.

The Spaniard, written off as a contender in Paris after a quarter-final loss to Novak Djokovic in 2015 and an injury-enforced pull-out before the third round last year, arrives at Roland Garros as the new favourite to add the 2017 title to victories in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. The 30-year-old has already reached the magical 10 titles number this year at the claycourt events in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. For good measure, he also won Madrid for a fifth time, ending a seven-match losing streak, stretching back over two years, against Djokovic in the process.

Nadal boasts a sensational career record at Roland Garros — 72 wins and just two defeats, to Djokovic in 2015 and an injury-affected shock loss to Robin Soderling in 2009. That defeat to the Swede opened the door for Roger Federer to win his only French Open title. However, Federer, at 35, the oldest man in the top five, is skipping the French Open to save himself for an assault on an eighth Wimbledon.

Djokovic, the defending champion in Paris, and world number one Andy Murray are struggling for form and confidence, leaving Nadal as the man to beat when the tournament starts on Sunday. Even losing in the Rome quarter-finals to young pretender Dominic Thiem has not diminished the Spaniard’s confidence. “To win four tournaments before Roland Garros, nobody has ever done this,” said Nadal, who will turn 31 on June 3. “But I have matched my best performances before arriving in Paris.” Nadal has also thrived on hard courts in 2017, reaching his first Slam final in three years when he lost in five sets to Federer in Australia despite being a break to the good in the deciding set. He was also a beaten finalist against Federer in Miami while his title triumph in Madrid gave him a record-equalling 30th Masters title to add to his 14 majors.


Nadal’s record on clay against the world’s top two is also heavily-weighted in his favour — 8-2 against Murray (2-0 at Roland Garros) and 10-5 when facing Djokovic (5-1 in Paris). This year’s Roland Garros will be the last for Nadal’s coach, his uncle Toni. In contrast, Djokovic will work with US legend Andre Agassi for the first time, having dropped his long serving back-up team in a desperate attempt to get his career back on track. Djokovic completed the career Grand Slam at last year’s French Open when he also held all four majors.

On clay this year, he has at least been on an upward curve-quarter-finals in Monte Carlo, semi-finals in Madrid and a runners-up spot in Rome where he was comprehensively demolished by Alexander Zverev. Djokovic’s relationship with the 47-year-old Agassi, an eight-time major winner, is limited, for the moment, to just the French Open. “Andre is someone that I have tremendous respect for as a person and as a player. He has been through everything that I’m going through,” said the Serb. Murray, defeated by Djokovic in the 2016 final, has endured a wretched season by his standards with an elbow injury not helping his cause. He lost third round in Monte Carlo, made the semis in Barcelona, was a third-round loser in Madrid before an opening defeat in Rome to Fabio Fognini.

“There is no reason for it from my end. I’m just not playing good tennis,” said Murray, who had his best year on clay in 2016 but who has now failed to reach a final in his last five events. World number three Stan Wawrinka, the shock champion in 2015, is also struggling with just two wins on clay all spring. Should the likes of Nadal, Djokovic and Murray falter, then the much-hyped #NextGen, featuring the likes of Zverev and Thiem could profit. On Sunday, Zverev, 20, became the first player born in the 1990s to win a Masters title. Thiem, the 23-year-old world number seven, stunned Nadal in Rome after losing to the Spaniard in the Madrid and Barcelona finals. However, he was crushed by Djokovic in the Rome semi-finals, winning just one game. At last year’s French Open, he made the semi-finals, winning just seven games off the Serb. —AFP