No-one happier to see Nadal firing for Paris than Federer

By Martyn Herman

When the French Open begins on Sunday the men's drawsheet will have a familiar look with Swiss world number one Federer and his claycourt nemesis separated by 126 other players -- six wins each away from an eighth grand slam final clash.

Twelve months ago Nadal's lock on Roland Garros was cracked by Sweden's Robin Soderling in a stunning fourth-round loss and Federer slid through the door to claim the elusive major he craved.

It completed his career slam and as the Swiss marched on to claim a record breaking 15th major at Wimbledon a few weeks later, Nadal watched from afar in Spain, the tendonitis in his knees casting doubts over his career and his off-court harmony shattered by his parents split.

Suddenly a classic rivalry that had elevated men's tennis to supreme new heights looked in jeopardy.

INCREDIBLE STUFF

"I knew that once the French and once the claycourt season came around he was would be very hard to beat. He has come up with some incredible stuff recently. He's Rafa Nadal after all."

Whereas many of his 13 previous defeats against Nadal gnawed away at Federer's ego, the Swiss was sanguine after losing in the Spanish capital, clearly pleased to have his sparring partner on the other side of the net again.

Nadal, who will have plenty of Spanish company, not least the dangerous David Ferrer and Fernando Verdasco, could hardly be in better shape as he arrives in Paris looking to reclaim the Coupe de Mousquetaires.

His serve is much improved this season and his backhand is now being hit flatter and harder while the forehand is still the spitting, snarling beast that it always was.

Nadal, however, is not one to big himself up, playing down his favorite's tag last week.

"I don't think I am," he said. "I'm very happy with what has happened up to now, I've got back to my best level and that's the important thing. Who knows what will happen in a week and a half or two weeks, there is more than one contender, there are many contenders."

Few of those look capable of stopping him.

World number three Novak Djokovic has lost twice to Verdasco in the run-up, number four Murray has suffered an alarming dip since losing to Federer in the Australian Open final and France's main hope, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, has struggled during the European claycourt swing.

Injuries have already bitten into the men's draw with Argentina's Juan Martin del Potro and Russian Nikolay Davydenko both sidelined. Parisian clay has many pitfalls but few would bet against anything other than a return to business as usual for the world's top two players.

(Editing by Miles Evans)