Could this be the End of Nadal’s French Open Dominance?

The player’s public unhappiness with the organization of this year’s French Open has prompted many to favor Djokovic at Roland Garros over the 12-time champion. During his professional career, the Spaniard has lost just two times in the 95 matches he has played at the French Open, but recent criticisms about the cold weather, the slow pace of the courts, and the heavy balls suggest he may record another loss at this year’s iteration of the Grand Slam competition.

A tennis ball under a racket on a clay court.

The French Open, the only Grand Slam that is played on clay courts has become synonymous with Rafael Nadal since 2005. Many are speculating the Spaniard’s dominance could end this year. ©StockSnap/Pixabay

Paris is renowned across the world as the city of love, and this has certainly been the case for Rafael Nadal and his love affair with the French Open, the only of the four Grand Slams that is played on clay courts. To say Nadal has been dominant in this tournament in the past is an understatement. The player’s 12 championships place him head and shoulders above the next most prolific champion of the event, Björn Borg, who won six times.

It is suspected by many that this year could be the year for change, however. On Friday the 25th of September, Nadal went on a rant that detailed the anger he was feeling towards the organizers of one of the great competitions in world tennis. The Spaniard singled out the cold weather (the event was postponed significantly due to COVID-19), but also about the speed of the courts and the weight of the balls.

This has left many with the unshakeable feeling that this year will be the time when Novak Djokovic is able to comprehensively rip the Coupe des Mousquetaires off the Spaniard for good. Whilst people are not discounting Nadal’s ability, and he is still the favorite to go all the way to the final alongside Djokovic, but his unhappiness, coupled with a recent dip in form, has left the Serbian the bookies’ favorite to win at Roland Garros this year.

This influx of betting on the Serbian to win the championship will likely be seen as a good sign for those in the gambling industry in France, that suffered severe losses to revenue in the second quarter due to COVID-19.

The dip in form refers to the recent loss that Nadal experienced whilst playing at the Italian Open in Rome last week. Nadal reached the quarter-finals without any big hiccups but stumbled in his game against the Argentinian, Diego Schwartzman, who dispatched the 34-year-old in straight sets to move into the semis. This loss has, in no small part, contributed to the fact that since then, nearly half of online gamblers have backed Djokovic to win in the French Open since.

Ball Controversy

Nadal is not the only player that has been publicly critical of the organizers’ decision to switch from the Babolat balls to ones that are manufactured by Wilson. Babolat balls are known as lighter and easier to spin than other tennis balls, and the Wilson balls have been criticized due to their increased weight. Nadal is perhaps best known for his venomous top-spin forehand and so may have trouble with the heavier balls.

Other players have picked up on problems that these balls are causing to their game. One example is Dan Evans, a British player who was the 32nd seed for the tournament in Paris. Evans was knocked out of the Open on the opening day by the Japanese player, Kei Nishikori, after four sets.

Evans has never recorded a win at Roland Garros and took the lead comfortably in the first set, as Nishikori looked to return to form after an extended period of absence from the game caused by elbow surgery and a positive COVID-19 test. Nishikori managed to mount an impressive comeback in the following sets to knock the British player out.

Following the game, Evans lashed out at the choice of balls for the tournament, coupled with the poor conditions that they are being used in. Evans stated that he would not give the balls that were used to his dog to chew on and then pointed to the exceptionally cold weather that is exacerbating the issue of how heavy the Wilson balls are.

Djokovic has also commented on the issue, highlighting that this is the first time the Wilson balls will be used on clay courts. He has also echoed the sentiment that the balls are too heavy for the surface and that this has been compounded by the cold conditions. The tournament being played in the autumn has left the clay very heavy and wet, according to the Serbian, which will undoubtedly slow the pace of the ball on the surface.

Djokovic has said that the jury is still out as to whether it is the balls that are causing the problems or if it is due to the weather but has also taken a very pragmatic approach to it all. He has stated that the issues are affecting all players equally and that they should just accept it. According to Djokovic, the players knew what they were signing up for, and this is why they all arrived early in a bid to get used to the adverse conditions.

Could No Crowds be an Issue?

Usually, during the two-week duration of the tournament, the site is a bustling sight with fans moving around the various courts in their droves, hoping to see the next great game of tennis. This year, however, the French Open is a ghost town.

The organizer of the tournament, Guy Forget, knew this would be the case, which is likely why he held out until the last minute to confirm that the French authorities forced the organizers to cut the number of paying fans from 5,000 per day to 1,000. This cut came as a result of the worrying rise in cases of COVID-19 that have been reported in the French capital lately.

It is likely that the lack of a crowd that generally adores Nadal could cause some sort of upset to the Spaniard’s game, who will often feed off the sentiment of fans to spur him to victory in the more closely contested matches he plays.

Will Thiem Go a Step Further than He Has Previously?

Whilst Nadal is widely doubted to perform at this year’s iteration of the Grand Slam, Dominic Thiem has been touted to do well as a result. Thiem is in the top half of Nadal’s side of the draw for the tournament, and seemingly could not be happier to be there.

Thiem, who recently won in the final of the US Open, is ecstatic to be back at Roland Garros. He has stated that he seeks to perform to the best of his ability in every tournament that he plays, but his desire is amplified at the French Open. Thiem has had two semi-finals and two finals at the French Open (both of which he lost to Nadal) and has professed his love for the conditions and for the tournament as a whole.

Whilst Thiem will be confident after his wins in the US Open; he will still likely have to fight his way past Djokovic. In the US Open, it is widely agreed he had an easier run to the final after the Serbian was disqualified for accidentally hitting a court steward with a tennis ball in a moment of frustration.

Barring any such upset at the French Open, should Nadal falter at the tournament this year, Thiem will still have to defeat Djokovic, who has been widely viewed as the most consistent player in world tennis over recent years. Djokovic has lost just one of his 32 games so far this year and remains the out and out favorite to win the championship this time around.

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A tennis ball bouncing on a clay tennis court.

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