French Open 2018

Novak's 'there always'

Rafael Nadal (left) is congratulated by Novak Djokovic after the world No. 1 won a hard-fought semi-final in Rome on May 19. They can meet in Paris only in the final.
Rafael Nadal (left) is congratulated by Novak Djokovic after the world No. 1 won a hard-fought semi-final in Rome on May 19. They can meet in Paris only in the final.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

No. 1 Nadal won't take recovering Djokovic lightly, also not bothered by missing Federer

PARIS • As much as there is an inclination in some quarters to park Novak Djokovic in the past, given his slow recovery from his elbow injury, his rival Rafael Nadal refuses to join the clamour.

"Novak is one of the best players in the history of this sport," the world No. 1 said ahead of his bid to win an 11th title at Roland Garros.

Their names fell on opposite sides of the draw, so a 52nd meeting of the duo could take place only in the final.

It is a collision that might require Nadal to get past Marin Cilic or Juan Martin del Potro,who is carrying a groin strain.

Djokovic has potential obstacles of varying difficulty in Grigor Dimitrov, Nick Kyrgios and Alexander Zverev, who is seeded second in the absence of Roger Federer .

Nadal, 31, starts against the eccentric Ukrainian hitter Alexandr Dolgopolov today, while Djokovic has drawn a qualifier, Rogerio Dutra Silva. Asked if he thought Djokovic could get back to his best following a second elbow procedure in January, Nadal said: "My answer is he's not coming back - he's there always.

"Sometimes when you come back from injuries (it) is difficult to play that well from the beginning. But he played a great event in Rome, and is no doubt one of the candidates to win here."

  • Players to watch

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    ALEXANDER ZVEREV, 21 (GERMANY)

    •World ranking: 3

    •Best French Open result: 3rd round (2016)

    He fares well on clay, having won two titles this year in Madrid and Munich. He also made it to the semi-finals in Monte Carlo and the final in Rome, where his 13-match winning streak was ended by Rafael Nadal.

    Inexperience may count against him; he has not made it past the fourth round of a Grand Slam.

    DOMINIC THIEM, 24 (AUSTRIA)

    •World ranking: 8

    •Best result: Semi-finals (2016, 2017)

    Another threat to Nadal, Thiem has won seven of his nine ATP titles on clay. He also advanced to the last four in Paris in the past two years. Crucially, he ended Nadal's record 50-set winning streak on clay in the Madrid Open quarter-finals this month.

    As he is generally a more strategic player rather than an aggressive one, the slower speed of the ball on clay lets him hit strong and calculated shots.

    WOMEN

    ELINA SVITOLINA, 23 (UKRAINE)

    •World ranking: 4

    •Best result: Quarter-finals (2015, 2017)

    She has never won a Grand Slam title but has form on her side, beating world No. 1 Simona Halep to retain her Italian Open title last weekend. She also won in Brisbane and Dubai to take her 2018 tally to three.

    A French Open junior champion, she knows the clay courts well and should improve on her quarter-final finishes.

    KIKI BERTENS 26 (NETHERLANDS)

    •World ranking: 18

    •Best result: S-finals (2016)

    Her title in Charleston and runner-up showing in Madrid, where she defeated Caroline Wozniacki, Maria Sharapova and Caroline Garcia, have made her a dark horse at Roland Garros. All her five career titles have come on clay and her confidence is high going into Paris.

In Rome last week, the Serb gave Nadal a high-level examination in two close sets in the semi-final of the Italian Open, which might have taken a slight edge off the Spaniard in the final, where he flirted with defeat before outlasting Zverev.

There is a good argument to be made that a refreshed and motivated Djokovic will be more dangerous than Zverev, whose gathering aura at 21 needs the varnish of staying power for him to be a consistent threat over seven best-of-five matches in a Grand Slam.

Nadal remains the raging favourite to lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires. He has won 79 and lost only two matches at Roland Garros - Djokovic is one of only two men to have beaten him - since his French Open debut in 2005 at age 19.

On Friday, 13 years, 78 titles and nearly £65 million (S$116 million) later, the Spaniard said: "It is true I had a lot of success on clay during my career, but every tournament is different.

"There is a generation of players with a lot of talent, and great potential to become big stars. Let's see how things happens."

Nadal also said he could not care less whether great rival Federer - who has opted to skip the clay-court season for the second year running - is in Paris or not and is simply focused on winning.

"Exactly the same," the 16-time Grand Slam champion said when asked whether winning last year or potentially this year would be less of an achievement with the Swiss maestro absent.

"I cannot say that the victory of Federer (in 2009) when I was injured or victory of Novak (in 2016) when I was injured is not that beautiful. (It) would not be fair."

THE GUARDIAN, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE., REUTERS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 27, 2018, with the headline 'Novak's 'there always''. Print Edition | Subscribe