Novak Djokovic offers rivals faint hope of a Rafael Nadal decline

World No 2 Novak Djokovic believes Rafael Nadal is still the man to beat in Rome and Paris

Rome

Novak Djokovic believes the world order remains unaltered, but as the leading men prepare to make their bow in this week’s Rome Masters there is a growing sense that change could be just around the corner. For most of the top players their appearance at the Foro Italico will be their last before the French Open, which begins a week on Sunday. For those with form or fitness concerns time is running out.

If Nadal’s victory at the  Madrid Masters on Sunday indicated that clay-court order had been restored following his quarter-final defeats in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, the Spaniard’s performance in the final might have suggested otherwise. Kei Nishikori, who yesterday became the first Japanese man to break into the world’s top 10, outplayed Nadal in the first set before retiring with a back injury. The 24-year-old has pulled out of Rome and faces a race to be fit for Roland Garros.

Nadal was still happy with his week’s work and Djokovic, when asked if he thought the world No 1 might be more vulnerable this year, offered only the faintest of hope for his rivals.

“People expect Rafa to win Monte Carlo and Barcelona – and all the clay tournaments he plays,” Djokovic said. “There always comes a time when you lose a match, but he’s still in top shape. Losing in the quarter-finals at both Monte Carlo and Barcelona gives players a little bit more hope that they can win against him, but the men who beat him [David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro] are still very good players.”

Andy Murray plays his first match here against Marcel Granollers after an early exit from Madrid, Roger Federer is short of match practice after the birth of his second set of twins and Djokovic has not competed since Monte Carlo because of a wrist problem.

Djokovic pulled out of last week’s Madrid tournament on medical advice. He said he had not wanted to compromise his chances either here or at Roland Garros, especially as other players – most notably Juan Martin del Potro – have had long spells out of the game with chronic wrist injuries.

The women’s world No 1 Serena Williams, who withdrew from Madrid before her quarter-final because of a thigh injury, will make a late decision on whether to play here. “I’m taking it a day at a time,” she said.

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