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French Open 2014: Rafael Nadal still cast as an outsider on courts he has dominated


French ambivalence towards Rafael Nadal has always been hard to understand and the defending champion must have wondered last night what more he has to do to please. Nadal’s opening match here this afternoon at the French Open, where he will be aiming to win the title for a remarkable ninth time, will be staged not on Court Philippe Chatrier but on Court Suzanne Lenglen, the second of the main show courts at Roland Garros.

It would be hard to imagine any of the three other Grand Slam tournaments even considering such scheduling. Nadal has an extraordinary record here, having lost just one of the 60 matches he has played on these courts. No other player has won the same Grand Slam eight times and, if he triumphs again the weekend after next, he will become the first man to win this title five times in a row.

While Nadal himself is not inclined to criticise French attitudes, his uncle and coach, Toni, has not always been as restrained. “There is only one set of supporters that is worse than the French and that is the Parisians,” Toni said in 2009 after Robin Soderling enjoyed good support as he inflicted Nadal’s only defeat here. “The Parisian crowd is pretty stupid. I think the French don’t like it when a Spaniard wins. Wanting someone to lose is a slightly conceited way of amusing yourself. They show the stupidity of people who think themselves superior.”

If the Parisian public appear reluctant to support someone they might consider to be an unsophisticated Spaniard, there has never been any doubt about their affection for the elegant ,French-speaking Swiss, Roger Federer. The former world No 1 began his campaign yesterday on Court Philippe Chatrier, beating Slovakia’s Lukas Lacko 6-2, 6-4, 6-2 in just 84 minutes.

After the match Federer was asked about Nadal’s prospects here. The Spaniard has lost more matches on clay already this season than in any other year since 2004, but Federer insisted: “I think he’s back where he wants to be. He’s played his matches he needs to play. He’s even won one of the Masters 1000 tournaments in Madrid.”

Asked if he thought Novak Djokovic was the favourite, Federer replied: “Not for me, but maybe for you. Rafa is the favourite, then Novak, then the rest. It’s very clear.”

Djokovic plays his first match today – on Court Philippe Chatrier, naturellement – against Portugal’s Joao Sousa, with Andy Murray due to start his campaign against Kazakhstan’s Andrey Golubev tomorrow. James Ward, the other Briton in the main draw, plays Spain’s Tommy Robredo this afternoon.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who beat Federer in the quarter-finals last year, began with a 7-6, 7-5, 6-1 victory over his fellow Frenchman, Edouard Roger-Vasselin. Tomas Berdych, the No 6 seed, beat Canada’s Peter Polansky 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 but there appeared to be more interest in the Czech’s floral shirt than his tennis. “You can find everything with flowers for the summer,” Berdych said afterwards. “It’s really nice. It’s very different.”