PARIS – When Andre Agassi pulled off what it widely considered to be his most spectacular run to a Grand Slam title, his dramatic and somewhat improbable capturing of the 1999 French Open, he by no means entered the tournament as the out-and-out favorite.
The American wasn't in the position that Rafael Nadal is today, where almost everyone expects the Spaniard to win his fifth title and possibly not even drop a set.
"It's like climbing Mt. Everest with bad weather trying to get over the line with Nadal in a three-out-of-five set match on clay," Agassi told FOXSports.com. "Certainly Robin Soderling shocked the world by upsetting him last year, but this year he's far and away the favorite."
Nadal hasn't lost a match on clay this year, becoming the first guy to capture all three ATP Masters Series titles on clay in one season at Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid, where he took down No. 1 Roger Federer for the title. He says that his confidence has returned after a rough stint from late May 2009 until April 2010, when he was riddled with knee injuries and failed to win a title. But he says that his focus is not about how many titles he's won, but with how well he's playing, as he realizes that at his best, the big trophies will follow.
On clay, the lefthander has almost unlimited options. He's perfectly suited for the surface due to his unique combination of offense and defense, his ability to mix spins, to move like the wind, to go in and out of slides with the balance of an Olympic bobsledder, to turn up the power or put up a defensive wall.
Eight time Grand Slam champion Agassi is just glad he doesn't have to face him on dirt, saying he likely wouldn't have shown up.
"Rafa's forehand is nasty," said Agassi, who just received news that Longines, the official timekeeper of Roland Garros, has awarded $10,000 scholarships to five graduates from his College Preparatory Academy in Las Vegas. "On clay I would have had to play on the edge against him and play lights out and that's not the way to play tennis. It's about calculated risk and he's going to make you take some crazy chances because the alternative is to get moved around court like you are on a string.
"When I played him in final of Montreal (a three-set loss on hardcourts in 2005), I thought that if I could step up and cane a backhand cross-court that he might be a little late to the forehand and leave it short and then I could take over the point. So the first time I caned a backhand to his forehand, he hit a forehand so high and so short that in order for me to take that ball early, I was literally on the service line. You think that's a good position to be in until you realize that after your approach shot he's going to be in position to put it at your feet and then you are going to hit a volley to a guy who is going to get to it and pass you with the ability to go around you or over you as well. Even if you cover the passing shot, sometimes you can't reach it because it's 10 feet up in the air."
Agassi can't point to one man in the field who has shown enough fortitude to beat Nadal on a great day at Roland Garros and that includes defending champion Roger Federer, who is 2-10 against Nadal on clay.
"Roger has the skill set to do it and if I'm coaching him I'm telling Roger that on clay he has to assume a level of risk. The one shot that Federer has that I haven't seen him use that effectively against Nadal is when he flattens out his forehand. He moves around his backhand to hit the inside-out forehand and takes one of the those new-age swings where the ball lands low and bounces away, but Rafa preys on it. If he can flatten out his forehand like Soderling does when he runs around the backhand, the speed of that ball is what going to give him progress in the point, not direction and spin. I know Roger has that shot, I just haven't seen it quite as much as he should use it.
"Eventually what happens when they play is he tries to beat Rafa with his backhand because Nadal eventually gets over there and gets onto Federer's backhand and if Federer tries to move around to hit a forehand, he gives up a lot of real estate.
Consequently, Agassi sees men who likely will take a machine gun approach with their forehands like Soderling and maybe young Latvian Ernest Gulbis as the type of guys who might trouble Nadal. Fortunately for the Spaniard and unfortunately for Federer, both those men are in the Swiss' quarter.
"When Rafa steps on court against Soderling he goes out thinking its more of a wildcard, but against other guys, he's thinking it's going to be predictable: ' I might not execute that well and maybe the guy can beat me, but it's going to be on terms that I recognize.'"
Since it's clear that none of Nadal's fellow Spaniards have made any substantial inroads against him and that Federer hasn't figured out how he should play him on the surface, who else is left to challenge him? No. 3 Novak Djokovic has reached the French semifinals before and No. 4 Andy Murray reached the 2009 quarterfinals. But Agassi, as well as much of the rest of the tennis world, has questions, as both have been skidding the past few months.
"Djokovic's serve is becoming a real point of concern," Agassi said. "The way he can hit the ball, move and take it early , he has the skills to be a factor, but he hasn't improved in the ways I foresaw him improving.
"Murray's game has been off the hooks at times, but I don't know if he believes in himself as much as he should. Did his loss to Federer in the Aussie Open final take the life out of him, or will it make him better? That's his choice. I thought this was going to be his year to break through and take over and he has game to do it. But sometimes if you depend too much on your wheels you don't step into court with conviction and you shouldn't wait for someone to lose when you get into big matches. He needs to rely on what he can do offensively, rather than what he prefers to do, which is to counterpunch."
No counterpuncher has ever beaten Nadal at the French Open, and no banger has ever beaten a healthy Nadal at the site either, unless you believe that the Spaniard was fit and spry last year in his loss to Soderling, which he clearly wasn't, hence his pullout of Wimbledon as the defending champion a few weeks later. As Agassi more or less says, when it comes to designing a strategy to confuse Nadal at Roland Garros, there really is no there, there. That's why if the Spaniard can maintain his health throughout the tournament, it will be total shock if he doesn't come away with his fifth Coupe des Mousquetaires.
"The problem is that Rafa is so good with his feet that you believe he's on the defense and he has the ability to be just close enough to be offensive and it forces you to never know when to commit and when to count on being able to take over the point and the court," Agassi said. "That's the whole idea. If I throw a blow and know that you are slightly hurt, I'm going to make my next decision thinking that you're hurt, hit my best shot in the world and then I find you are really not really hurt and then I find myself being indecisive. You find yourself taking more risks and not playing the tennis that will get you over the line against him."