Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - For the first time in a long time, Rafael Nadal will not head to Paris as the prohibitive favorite at the French Open.
Sure, Rafa has won five straight and nine of the last 10 French Open titles, going 66-1 in a decade of dominance at the clay-court major in the process, but the soon-to-be-29-year-old star has battled several injuries, as well as some confidence issues, over the past several months, leaving the door open for reigning world No. 1 Novak Djokovic.
The soaring Serbian star, who currently owns the Australian Open and Wimbledon crowns, still needs a big win at Roland Garros to fill out his career Grand Slam trophy case, just like his contemporaries Roger Federer and Nadal. Only seven men have won all four majors (Fred Perry, Don Budge, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Andre Agassi, Federer and Nadal).
The eight-time Grand Slam champ Djokovic has been winning everything in sight this year, including a fifth Aussie title and four Masters 1000 events in as many tries thus far.
Can he be stopped by Federer, Nadal, or anyone else for that matter in Paris?
Smart money says no!
The super Serb has dropped only two matches all season and is currently riding a torrid 22-match winning streak. He beat Federer in last week's marquee finale at the Rome Masters for his fourth title in the "Eternal City."
Nadal, meanwhile, has been floundering on his beloved clay, having failed to secure a title in his last four events on the dirt. He gave way to Stan Wawrinka in a quarterfinal last week in Rome, this less than one week after being stunned by Andy Murray in the final at the Madrid Masters.
The former No. 1 Nadal also lost to scrappy Italian Fabio Fognini in a third- rounder in Barcelona and succumbed to his great rival Djokovic in the semifinals at the Monte Carlo Masters.
Nadal's last title on clay came at the Argentina Open back on March 1. That's an eternity on that surface for the "King of Clay."
He owns 14 major titles overall, but No. 15 doesn't look like it's in the offing in the next few weeks.
Note: Nadal's lone career loss at the French came at the hands of Swede Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009.
How 'bout the swashbuckling Swiss/Wimbledon runner-up Federer? Does he have a chance in Paris?
Sure he does.
The former No. 1 Fed will head to the French as the second favorite behind Djokovic, and with those two being seeded 1 and 2, they could only meet in a blockbuster final.
Djokovic is a two-time French Open runner-up to Nadal, including last year when he lost in four sets in the final, while the 17-time Grand Slam king Federer captured the event in 2009 and has lost to Nadal in no less than four finals in the City of Light.
Note: The 33-year-old Federer hasn't reached the final in Paris in four years.
The last time that someone not named Nadal or Federer won the French Open was in 2004, when Argentine Gaston Gaudio upset Guillermo Coria in an all-Gaucho finale.
An in-form Murray will head to Paris with his best-ever shot at running the table. This year's Aussie runner-up to Djokovic had never even reached a clay- court final before his recent success with back-to-back titles in Munich and Madrid.
The two-time Grand Slam champ is a perfect 10-0 on clay this year, but is he prepared to win seven straight matches at the world's most physically demanding tourney?
I really only see one other contender in Paris, and that would be last year's U.S. Open runner-up Kei Nishikori.
The Japanese star just seems to keep getting better and has already titled on clay this year, in Barcelona, where he's won the last two championships. He was also a runner-up on the dirt at last year's Madrid Masters and is an all- courter who is as hungry as anyone out there on the circuit.
Recent history, of course, would suggest that Nadal is still the man to beat at RG, but I don't think the high-flying Djokovic will be denied this time around.
I'm callin' it for Djoker.
The eventual winner will earn a cool $2.05 million.