Djokovic hits Paris in form that can create new world order

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The Independent Online

These are changing times. Rafael Nadal is not the overwhelming favourite to win the French Open, which starts here tomorrow, Novak Djokovic is poised to become only the third world No 1 in the last seven years, Roger Federer is barely mentioned when potential winners are discussed and Babolat balls, said to be lively and more difficult to control, are being used in the tournament for the first time.

Andy Murray is also getting in on the act. The 24-year-old Scot's unruly mop of hair – "It was pretty big," he admitted – has been cut back and he was clean-shaven yesterday. The world No 4 is also promising to improve his on-court demeanour.

Nadal has won this tournament five times in the last six years, but Djokovic's extraordinary 39-match winning run includes two recent victories over the king of clay. Both men regard each other as favourites here.

Nadal, who faces a tall order in the first round against the 6ft 9in American John Isner, said he was not thinking about meeting Djokovic. However, if the game's two outstanding players do meet in the final Nadal said he would learn from his defeats in Madrid and Rome.

"When you lose, you have to try to find different things," Nadal said. "It's like football. Real Madrid lost 5-0 against Barcelona in the league and when they played them in their next match they played different tactically. In football it's easier to make big changes because you have 11 people. Tennis is a much more simple game, but you can always adjust a few things."

Asked to identify what had improved in Djokovic's game, Nadal said: "Technically I don't think he has changed many things. Probably right now he's defending better. When you have this confidence, it seems like you improve everything a lot."

Djokovic, who insisted that "nobody is unbeatable", said he was trying not to think about when his run might end "because that will mean that I'm thinking about losing". As for the changes at the top of the men's game, he said: "I think it's good for tennis to have another rivalry. It's not just Federer-Nadal, which has been one of the biggest, if not the biggest, rivalry ever in our sport. Now it's myself and Murray coming up and a couple other players."

Murray goes into the year's second Grand Slam event during his best season on clay. Having recovered from the woeful run that followed his appearance in the Australian Open final, he has reached two clay-court Masters Series semi-finals in the last six weeks. He took a set off Nadal in Monte Carlo and served for the match against Djokovic in Rome, losing in a tie-break.

The Scot admitted his body language had not been good earlier this year. "I didn't feel like I was expressing myself really on the court in terms of the way I was playing or how I was acting. I definitely feel I've been expressing myself more the last couple of months, but it's still something that can be better and something I'll be looking to improve on, especially for the next few months.

"Everybody's different. I've watched matches with someone like Novak, where he's broken rackets, where he's shouting. Rafa and Roger are a bit different, but you can still see when they're getting frustrated, especially when you're on court with them. You know when players are struggling and when they're not. Especially for guys like me and Novak, who are maybe a bit more vocal, I think it's better to let it out rather than just let it fester."

Murray said he had learned to be more patient in rallies on clay, particularly against Djokovic and Nadal. "You need to stay with them, take your chances to go for the shots at the right time, not bail out of rallies early and make them do some running, which I think I managed to do in both of the matches."

The world No 4 said he was fit despite having pulled out of an exhibition match on Thursday. "Maybe my body was just saying to take it easy for a day or so because I've been working very hard," he said.

In the first round Murray faces France's Eric Prodon, the world No 118, who at 29 has yet to win a match at a Grand Slam tournament. The winner will play one of two more qualifiers, Italy's Simone Bolelli (No 129) or Canada's Frank Dancevic (No 179).

If Murray gets through to the third round he could meet Milos Raonic, who in the last 12 months has climbed 275 places in the world rankings to No 28. The 20-year-old Canadian has a huge serve and has hit 438 aces this year.

Thereafter the seedings say that Murray will play Serbia's Viktor Troicki in the fourth round, Austria's Jurgen Melzer in the quarter-finals and Nadal in the semi-finals. Djokovic and Federer are seeded to meet in the semi-final.

Three Paris Outsiders

Tomas Berdych (Cz Rep, World No 6)

Made semi-finals here last year, losing in five sets to Robin Soderling, before going on to reach the Wimbledon final, where he was beaten by Rafael Nadal. Has a big game and can perform well on clay

Richard Gasquet (France, No 14)

Has never gone beyond the third round of his home Grand Slam event and can crack under pressure, but he proved with wins over Roger Federer and Berdych last week that he is returning to his best

Thomaz Bellucci (Brazil, No 25)

Beat Andy Murray and Berdych en route to semi-finals in Madrid, where he also took a set off Novak Djokovic. Left-hander with a strong serve and forehand who likes playing on clay

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