While never wanting to revel in a fellow competitor’s misfortune, Rafael Nadal could be forgiven for flashing a brief smile at Roger Federer’s announcement on Thursday that he would be missing the French Open, which gets underway on Sunday. It is not that Nadal would have viewed the Swiss great, who has played just four tournaments this year and has not reached a semifinal at Roland Garros since 2012, as a major threat to his hopes of reclaiming the title. But, rather the withdrawal of Federer, slated to be the No. 3 seed, means that when the draw is made tomorrow Nadal will slide up one spot to No. 4.
It may not seem like much, but for Nadal it means that rather than facing the prospect of meeting world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals, as happened to his cost a year ago, he cannot now come up against the Serbian, or world No. 2 Andy Murray, until at least the semifinals. Given that the top two in the world are the only players to have beaten Nadal in this European clay-court season, it represents a significant boost to Nadal’s chances.
What could have been a nightmare path to the title, having to go through Djokovic, Murray and defending champion Stan Wawrinka, is now off the table.
Even without the seeding bump, Nadal had reason to go into the French Open with far more optimism than he did 12 months ago. In the midst of an annulus horriblis, last year was the first since 2004 in which the 29-year-old arrived in Paris having failed to win in a single title on the European clay ahead of the event.
Not only did he relinquish his Roland Garros crown and lose just his second match ever at the Grand Slam, but the nine-time champion was swept aside by Djokovic in straight sets in the last eight. Nadal was a shadow of his former dominant, imposing self.
It was not until getting back on the red clay last month that the signs of his former glories truly returned with consistency. Nadal won 13 successive matches, taking him to his first Masters 1000 title in almost two years in Monte Carlo and a ninth crown in Barcelona. While he was beaten in the semifinals in Madrid by Murray and then the quarterfinals of Rome by Djokovic, Nadal nevertheless has reason to be upbeat.
There is, after all, no court in the world where he is more feared and more inspired than Court Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros. And then there is the fact that anyone hoping to beat Nadal will have to win three out of five sets against him rather than the two out of three managed by Djokovic and Murray in recent weeks. With Nadal’s ability to simply grind opponents down and make them play one extra ball, it is an intimidating task.
Of the other challengers, Wawrinka is on a rotten run of form, while questions persist about Kei Nishikori’s ability to go the distance over five sets. Nadal should not fear anyone until the semifinals, which is now, thanks to Federer’s back complaint, the earliest he can meet his two biggest rivals for the title.