Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams showed at the Madrid Masters over the weekend why they will be the favourites to win this year’s French Open.
Spaniard Nadal defeated surprise finalist Stanislas Wawrinka, who benefited from the shock second round exit of Novak Djokovic, in straight sets to claim his third Madrid Masters title.
Serena Williams did likewise to Maria Sharapova, in the process notching up a 14th consecutive victory over the Russian dating back to 2004.
Nadal has made the most impressive of comebacks on the ATP tour, having made the final of all seven tournaments he has entered since launching his comeback in February.
Out of those seven finals he has won five titles; two in South America, one at Indian Wells and the two most recent coming in his home country of Spain.
However, one of those two final losses came in his favourite tournament outside the French Open, the Monte-Carlo Masters, where, after eight years, he surrendered the title to his nemesis Novak Djokovic.
Many believed it was that victory by the Serbian which that him the favourite for this year’s French Open.
But I still believe that Nadal should be the favourite for Roland Garros, which starts in two weeks, given his history at the tournament (seven titles and only one solitary match loss).
History beckons for the Spaniard in Paris – an eighth title would see him become the first man to win eight titles at any Grand Slam tournament.
As it stands now, Nadal is only 25 points behind David Ferrer in the rankings. As he is defending maximum points in Rome, Nadal will have to hope that Ferrer makes an early exit in the Italian capital to snatch the fourth seed slot in time for the French Open.
Novak Djokovic will be the top seed in Paris, followed by Andy Murray and then Roger Federer, meaning that Nadal will almost certainly receive his lowest ever seeding at any major since Wimbledon in 2005.
Hopefully the draw will pan out such that Djokovic and Nadal won’t have to meet until the final. Djokovic is currently on a streak of eleven consecutive Grand Slam semi-finals, dating back to Wimbledon in 2010.
After the French Open, though, Nadal will have virtually nothing to defend (save for a second round loss at Wimbledon last year), so there is a huge chance that Nadal can finish the season on a roll and reclaim his place in the top two.
Just when it was thought that the Djokovic versus Nadal rivalry was dead, suddenly it is reborn again.
Meanwhile, on the women’s side, Williams continued her dominance over Maria Sharapova.
The American, whose clay performances have been mediocre historically, defied an eleven-year red clay court title drought to record a straight sets victory over the Russian.
In doing so she also consolidated her world number one ranking, which she has all but locked up ahead of the French Open.
Very specifically, in 2008 and 2012, Williams had enjoyed very successful clay court seasons, even more successful than the players who would go on to capture the French Open in those years (Ana Ivanovic and Maria Sharapova, respectively).
Those same two years, Williams entered the French Open as one of the favourites to win the title; the first coming after Justine Henin’s shock retirement left her as the only active woman at the time to lift the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen trophy. The second came after she defeated both Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova to win the Madrid title on the controversial blue clay.
In 2008, Williams received possibly the easiest draw of anyone else in the field, and it was ready-made for her to win what would have been her second French Open title (after 2002).
Instead, she crashed out in the third round to Katarina Srebotnik, opening the door for Ana Ivanovic to eventually capture the title.
It must be remembered, though, that Ivanovic had a very poor build-up to the French Open that year, having suffered two early exits in the three tournaments leading up to Paris.
Last year Williams was also given an easy draw, but was sent packing in the first round when she went out to Virginie Razzano in three sets.
That defeat also cleared the way for Maria Sharapova to capture the title, and thus complete a career Grand Slam which would later be complemented by a silver medal at the London Olympics.
In both those years Williams would have met the eventual champion in the quarter-finals, and given her dominance over both of them, she could have easily defeated both of them on the way to winning another two French Open titles.
The latter defeat would turn out to be the turning point of Williams’ career. Her first round loss last year appeared to vindicate that the great Williams sisters era was coming to an end. How wrong that turned out to be.
Before Wimbledon last year, Williams hired French tennis coach Patrick Mouratoglou, who had previously had experience with Marcos Baghdatis, Yanina Wickmayer and Aravane Rezai, among others.
The results came immediately – the 31-year-old finished 2012 on a rampage, winning her fifth Wimbledon title, the Olympic gold medal, her fourth US Open title, her third year-end championships title, and finishing the year ranked number three
This year, she has picked up where she has left off from last year, picking up four titles: the Brisbane International, a sixth Miami title, a third Charleston title and now a second Madrid title.
Additionally, she has reclaimed the number one ranking, which she can keep a strong grip on after the French Open given she is defending minimum points.
The tournament in Rome starts this week. Maria Sharapova has maximum points to defend (as the two-time defending champion) so she will have to hope that Williams makes an early exit for her to claim the top seed slot for the French Open. Otherwise, Williams will enter the French Open as the top seed, and the favourite to win the title.
Next week I will provide a series of articles previewing the big four’s (both men’s and women’s) chances of lifting the French Open title, and identify some of the big threats outside of those groups for the title.
Already Rafa and Serena are looking the goods, but there are others out there as well.