Two weeks before the start of the French Open, and No. 5-ranked Rafael Nadal may already have his eighth-career slam on clay locked up.
The reasoning is simple: Even factoring in the knee injury that kept him out for seven months last year, no one can attack the clay court quite like Nadal.
The 26-year-old has won seven of the last eight French Opens, and this year has captured five singles titles alone, making him the hottest player in the world.
Before he was forced to retire from his second match at the Italian Open Wednesday, Scotsman Andy Murray called Nadal the favorite due to his history on clay, and said the return from injury would not be a factor.
“On clay he was quite far ahead of the rest of the pack so when he came back, even though his level maybe dropped a bit, once he starts to play more and more matches he’s going to get up to that level,” Murray said to The Daily Record.
“His consistency’s been very impressive since he’s come back. It will be interesting to see if he can maintain that because it’s not easy.”
No. 2 ranked Murray would later pull himself out of his match with Spain’s Marcel Granollers due to a lower back injury and said he would be surprised if he plays in Paris.
The likely loss of Murray takes a top player out of Nadal’s march for an eighth French Open title, and he continued his incredible run for a 6-1, 6-3 victory over Italy’s Fabio Fognini in Rome on Wednesday.
The 26-year-old has now won 11 straight matches, dropping one set during that stretch, while winning 31 of his 33 matches this year. It’s no coincidence Nadal has enjoyed his comeback by playing 28 of those matches on clay for a 26-2 record on his best surface.
Nadal also continues to go deep in tournaments, only losing in the championship round to No. 1 Novak Djokovic in straight sets in Monte Carlo, and a grueling three-set, two-tie-breaker marathon with Argentina’s Horacio Zeballos in Chile. He is also 6-1 versus Top 10 opponents.
Djokovic and No. 3 Roger Federer still stand in the way, but Nadal has gotten the better of both world class players over the years.
Even with Federer’s incredible success in slams, Nadal holds a 19-10 career record against the Swiss native and a five-year age advantage. Nadal also beat Federer in straight sets in the quarterfinals at Indian Wells back in March. Nadal holds a career 19-15 record over Djokovic, and won three of their four matches last year before his injury.
The French Open will run from Sunday, May 26 to June 9 at Roland Garros in Paris.