Question: What do Juan Carlos Ferrero, Igor Andreev and Roger Federer have in common?
Answer: All of them have beaten Rafael Nadal during the Euroclay season leading up to Roland Garros.
There you have it. And the most remarkable aspect of that trivia question is what's left unsaid-that nobody else has beaten Nadal (at least not since he was a mere stripling) on the red clay in Europe before Paris. The only real surprise on that list is Andreev-all the other players are Grand Slam champions and former No. 1-ranked players. Andreev took the measure of Rafa in the quarters of Valencia in 2005, when Nadal was ranked No. 31. But it was just days after Nadal had slashed his way to the Miami Masters final (losing to Federer in five sets) and mere weeks since he made one of the first huge statements of his career, in Acapulco.
It wasn't that Acapulco was such a big event. Rather, it was the overpowering way Nadal blasted his way to the title, taking out (in order), Alex Calatrava, Santiago Ventura, Guillermo Canas, Mariano Puerta and Albert Montanes. It was a kind of Platonic round-by-round for clay-court tennis, all either Spanish or Argentinian men with a preference for the dirt. And Nadal gave Montanes a single game in the final, which he won 6-1, 6-0.
Furthermore, after what looks like an odd, inexplicable glitch against against Andreev, Nadal became the Rafa whom we now know and love (or, in some cases, fear and loathe). He would not lose again in 2005 until his feet touched grass in Halle. Nadal won, in succession, Monte Carlo (d. Guillermo Coria), Barcelona (d. Ferrero), Rome (d. Coria) and Roland Garros (d. Puerta). By the end of that run, he was No. 3 in the world and no longer a question mark in anyone's mind.
Beyond that, the most notable resistance to Nadal on clay has been mounted by Federer. He's not just the GOAT, he's also the only man who's actually posted more than one win over Nadal during the European clay-court circuit, an odd and counter-intuitive truth that says more about Nadal's prowess on clay than Federer's shortcomings in that department (which amount to one: an inability to consistently beat Nadal on dirt).
Federer prevailed over Nadal once in Hamburg and once in Madrid, where he may get another chance to add to his tally later this week. Which brings us back to the second most intriguing question of moment (after, "Can Novak Djokovic continue his winning steak on clay?"): Can anyone beat Nadal between now and the second week in June?
The answer to any question of that kind is always "Of course." There's the occasional Andreev, right? But apart from an upset that's less likely to happen than a collision between the earth and an asteroid, there are three men who pose a realistic, reasonable threat to Nadal. A win by any of them would be surprising, but by no means shocking. I'm talking about Federer, Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro. Let's take a look at each of them.
Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal Federer vs. Nadal Relive the head-to-head battles between the two best players in men's tennis. Slideshow
Remember him? One-handed backhand, excellent mobility, good hair. It's been a while since Federer generated headlines, and don't think he's unaware of it. Although he isn't the bitter, vengeful type, Federer is nicely positioned to act as the spoiler who halts the latest Nadal clay-court streak (34 and counting). Furthermore, Federer needs to fire just that loud a shot to regain the ground he's lost to Novak Djokovic, who's replaced Federer at No. 2-and as the most likely candidate to unhorse Nadal. Don't think Federer doesn't have this W in him.
Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal
Federer vs. Nadal
Relive the head-to-head battles between the two best players in men's tennis.
Having those two spring Masters Series wins over Nadal on clay helps. One of those victories occurred in Madrid, where Federer likes the conditions, provided there's sufficient sunshine to dry and speed up the courts. But Federer also took the measure of Nadal in perpetually damp, cloudy Hamburg, so appealing to mother nature isn't his only option.
Although Nadal has repeatedly shown that he's capable of focusing and marshaling his enthusiasm for extended periods, everyone is subject to the unexpected lapse-the kind of day when the ball just won't fall right and/or the legs don't want to move, no matter how harsh the orders from the brain. But Federer doesn't need Nadal to have a horrible day; he just needs to have a great one himself, and hope that Nadal gives him an opening here or there.
Nadal and Federer (seeded No. 3) are on the same side of the draw in Madrid, and the next highest seed in Federer's quarter is Robin Soderling (No. 5), who's struggled lately. The biggest stumbling block on Federer's path to the semifinals appears to be Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who specializes in disappointing expectations but has the talent and disposition to come up big now and then. Remember, there's no pressure on Federer whatsoever-he's shifted that burden to Djokovic's shoulders, which ought to enable him to feel swifter and lighter-of-step than he has in years.
There's no occasion so big that Federer hasn't experienced and mastered it. If he catches an emotional wave, which he's bound to do at least a few more times in his career, watch out.
Memorable moments in French Open history Memorable moments in French Open history Take a look at a timeline of the biggest matches and moments through the years at the French Open. Memorable moments at Roland Garros Take a look back at some of the biggest matches in French Open history. Clive Brunskill Getty Images 9 Jun 2001: Jennifer Capriati of the USA celebrates with the trophy after winning the womens final match against Kim Clijsters of Belgium during the French Open Tennis at Roland Garros, Paris, France. Mandatory Credit: Clive Brunskill/ALLSPORT French Open Tennis Timeline
It's all about Djokovic these days, and with good reason. He's undefeated in 2011, and in the best shape of his life (thanks partly to the work of his nutritionist, who weaned him off the pasta and pizza). Djokovic can do just about anything but beat Nadal on clay-at least that's what the record says in bold-faced black-and-white as of right now.
Memorable moments in French Open history
Memorable moments in French Open history
Take a look at a timeline of the biggest matches and moments through the years at the French Open.
Memorable moments at Roland Garros
Take a look back at some of the biggest matches in French Open history.
9 Jun 2001: Jennifer Capriati of the USA celebrates with the trophy after winning the womens final match against Kim Clijsters of Belgium during the French Open Tennis at Roland Garros, Paris, France. Mandatory Credit: Clive Brunskill/ALLSPORT
French Open Tennis
Djokovic has gotten the occasional set off Nadal on clay, but even on those occasions Nadal appeared to win pulling away. The notable exception was the semifinal in Madrid in 2009. That match was a real corker; Nadal emerged with the win, 7-6 (9) in the third. But there have been scant few other occasions when Djokovic has been able to maintain the pace set by Nadal on clay. In three meetings at Roland Garros, where it most counts, Djokovic is 0-8 in sets (he retired after going down two sets the first time he and Nadal crossed swords, which was in the French Open).
Djokovic's problems with Nadal on clay (and at Grand Slams in general) seem to have less to do with style, strategy or tactics than conditioning and mental and emotional stamina. But the evidence of the first quarter of 2011 suggests that he may have redressed those shortcomings, which is why building on his hard-court success in the coming weeks is so critical to Djokovic's long-term hopes and ambitions. Should David Ferrer (seeded No. 6 in Madrid) and Djokovic meet in the quarters, we'll get a pretty good idea of just how much fitter and stronger Djokovic is this year.
Celebrity tennis fans Take a look at some well-known fans in the world of tennis. Slideshow
Del Potro scares Nadal; the No. 1 has said as much in the past, if not in so many words. Delpo's size (6'6") enables him to take many of those vicious topspin blasts by Nadal right in his own wheelhouse. And nobody, but nobody, can drive even the most resourceful retriever or counter-puncher back off the baseline better than del Potro. He's also adept at setting up the forehand blast to which there simply is no reply.
Celebrity tennis fans
Take a look at some well-known fans in the world of tennis.
Nadal and Delpo have met on clay only once, in the first round at Roland Garros in 2007 (del Potro was 18 at the time). After that, del Potro gained ground on Nadal pretty quickly. By the fall of 2009, he was working on a four-match winning streak (he won his third-straight hard-court clash with Nadal in the U.S. Open semis of 2009, giving up just two games per set in a blowout), but his wrist injury and subsequent layoff through almost all of 2010 set him back. Nadal prevailed in their only meeting since Delpo's return, winning a semifinal battle at Indian Wells a almost two months ago.
Del Potro has come a long way since that loss; on Sunday in Estoril, he advanced his comeback with the second title he's bagged since he was forced off the tour. Delpo was 25-6 on the year going into Madrid, while Nadal was 29-4, which shows just how quickly the tall Argentinian is closing the gap and racing ahead of the rankings, where he sits in the not-very-impressive-or telling-No. 32 position.
Nadal could conceivably face all three men this week in Madrid, starting with an un-satisfyingly early third-round date with del Potro. For an iconic clay-court player like Nadal, it may be all in a day's work, but anybody who thinks it will be easy might want to think again.
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