Time for a new Nadal challenger

It would be better for the game if somebody other than Roger Federer took on the imperious Spaniard on the clay of France and that somebody could be Novak Djokovic.

The chances of Roger Federer, left, ending Rafael Nadal's remarkable run at Roland Garros remain slim.
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Nobody who has watched Roger Federer perform with distinction on and off the tennis court over the last decade would begrudge the Swiss maestro the French Open title he desperately wants to complete his collection of the sport's four major honours. Ten years in a row Federer has put his powerful all-court game to the test in what for him are the least favourable conditions of Roland Garros's red clay and each time the former world No 1 has departed frustrated. His last four challenges have been ended by the "King of Clay" Rafael Nadal - the last three of them in the final.

Federer arrived in the French capital to prepare for this year's tournament which begins today in buoyant mood following a rare success over Nadal on the European dirt in the final of the Madrid Open a week ago. His hopes of a 14th grand slam title to equal Pete Sampras's all-time record have been given a timely boost. That said, the chances of Federer becoming the man to end Nadal's remarkable unbeaten run at Roland Garros remain slim. Slower courts than those in Madrid will reduce Federer's firepower and the need to take three rather than two sets off the world No 1 appears to have become a major psychological obstacle for the Swiss.

Never was that mental block better illustrated than in last year's final when Federer seemed resigned to defeat before he went on court and managed to win only four games in a disappointingly one-sided conclusion to a fortnight of jostling. It would be better for the game, therefore, for somebody else to take part in what has become a modernised version of the old "challenge round" against the imperious Nadal - and that somebody could well be Novak Djokovic.

The confident (some would say cocky) young Serbian has already shown that he has what it takes to triumph on the big stages when capturing the Australian Open last year. He held three match points against Nadal in a captivating semi-final in Madrid before the sheer courage of the world No 1 prevailed in a four-hour struggle which left Nadal powerless to take on Federer in a misleading final 24 hours later.

Djokovic's outstanding display in losing to Nadal was the most telling form guide to the French Open of the month-long build-up and Federer was wise enough to recognise that after he had capitalised on Nadal's weariness. To earn another crack at Nadal on June 7, Djokovic may have to deal with Federer in the semi-finals but there are a cluster of dangerous Frenchmen who will have something to say about that in their attempts to cause major damage in the bottom half of the draw. Gael Monfils, providing a nagging knee injury does not hamper his customary swift movement, and Paul Henri Mathieu, both have the clay court skills to derail Federer in front of their home crowd, while the brilliant but enigmatic Jo Wilfried Tsonga is a heavyweight obstacle lying in the path of Djokovic.

The biggest shock in the top half of the draw may be the failure of Britain's Andy Murray to justify his career-high ranking of three in earning a semi-final date with Nadal. Murray could have been given an easier start than the awkward Argentine Juan Ignacio Chela, who has drifted down the rankings of late but remains one of the most dangerous floaters in clay court draws. Assuming Murray copes with that serious opening threat, the Spaniard Albert Montanes is a likely third round rival with world No 7 Gilles Simon, not the most adept Frenchman at rising to the demands of a home crowd, a projected quarter-final opponent.

However well Murray performs, the Scotsman is likely to suffer the same fate as every other player who has tackled Nadal here and bow out in the semi-finals - one round before what is expected to be a gallant Djokovic challenge comes up fractionally short. wjohnson@thenational.ae