French Open 2015: Is Rafael Nadal’s French reign over?

He has lost just once at Roland Garros but this year the king of clay is not the favourite, writes Paul Newman in Paris

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A radiographer who works in a hospital in the German  city of Essen will be among those taking particular interest in events here at the French Open over the next fortnight.

Lars Burgsmüller, who studied medicine after retiring seven years ago, was the first player to face Rafael Nadal in this tournament, in 2005. The then 29-year-old German lost, but was soon in good company. In the 66 matches Nadal has played here at Roland Garros he has lost only once, when his troublesome knees finally gave way against Robin Soderling in 2009.

“I’ve always said that beating me obviously gave Rafa a lot of confidence,” Burgsmüller laughed. “He was very young then, but he was improving very quickly. I tried to attack him. I kept coming to the net. I knew I had no chance if I played long rallies from the baseline.

“I remember there were a lot of rallies I thought I was going to win, but he was so quick that he somehow chased down the balls and passed me when I was at the net. I really couldn’t believe it. He was  so fast, running for every ball and hitting great shots from every corner.”

That was to become a familiar story over the next 10 years, but when the tournament starts tomorrow Nadal will not be the favourite for the first time since claiming the first of his record nine title triumphs here. After 11 injury-hit months, during which he has won only one minor title, Nadal is the bookmakers’ second choice behind the world No 1, Novak Djokovic, who has been sweeping all before him this year.

Having fallen to No 7 in the world, Nadal was always going to be at the mercy of the draw, which yesterday presented him with a potentially huge challenge. If the seedings work out, he will face Djokovic in the quarter-finals, the winner to meet Andy Murray in the semi-finals. Roger Federer will be happy to avoid that logjam in the other half of the draw.

Federer, who said yesterday that the comparatively cool and slower conditions expected next week could suit Nadal, is in a minority who still regard the Spaniard as the favourite.

“Of course, when Rafa doesn’t win a clay-court event it’s a big surprise,” Federer said. “But [this year] he did win the title in Buenos Aires, he was in the semi-finals at Monte Carlo and he was in the final at Madrid. Other players would die for those results, but Rafa expects more of himself. Maybe he just played the wrong players at the wrong time.”

He added: “Regardless of what anyone says to me, Rafa’s the favourite to win the French Open. The guy’s only lost [here] once in 10 years. There’s no way past that guy being the absolute favourite.”

In his 66 victories on these courts Nadal has been taken to five sets only twice – in the 2013 semi-finals by Djokovic (who has lost all six of their meetings here) and in the first round in 2011 by the big-serving John Isner, who played his own attacking game.

“I had nothing to lose,” Isner recalled last week. “I believe my serve is better than anybody else’s, so I feel that’s always going to keep me in a match. I remember on that day it was pretty hot. Especially at the French Open when the sun’s out, the courts can be pretty quick.”

Isner believes some of Nadal’s past opponents here have lost to him before a ball is struck. “I’m sure Rafa has played guys who go out on the court and absolutely shrink and don’t necessarily believe in themselves and he rolls them off the court. But you could also play guys who have nothing to lose, swing away and play great.”

What does Isner make of Nadal today? “He’s not at the level he’s been at the last few years. I think he would say the same. When I played him in Monte Carlo I was surprised in particular at how short his ball was landing. It just seems he doesn’t quite have the confidence yet. But I think he’s starting to turn the corner.”

Nadal himself insisted yesterday that he could play “a great tournament” over the next fortnight. “Since January, day after day, I think I have improved a lot,” he said. “I am having fewer bad days than in the first few months. I am a little bit more consistent.”

The Spaniard admitted recently to self-doubt, nerves and a lack of confidence. Asked if he thought it was in his best interests to be so honest, Nadal replied: “At the end of the day you can lie here but you cannot lie on court. If you say you are great and go on court and play against a good player, you can’t lie to him.”

There is no more experienced voice in tennis than that of Nick Bollettieri, the legendary coach and Independent columnist, but he for one is reserving judgement on Nadal.

“I’m going to take the Fifth Amendment until after the French Open,” Bollettieri said. “He’s not moving as well and maybe the longer the rallies go on these days it doesn’t suit him like it used to, but you just can’t argue with his record. I’m going to say nothing until Roland Garros is over. The one thing I do know is that you can never count Nadal out.”