Six years ago, a small window of opportunity opened up at the French Open as the king of the clay court, four-time defending champion Rafael Nadal, did the unthinkable and lost. The fourth-round defeat came at the hands of Robin Soderling and completely opened the field for a new winner. (It should be noted that just a few weeks later, Nadal would pull out of Wimbledon with knee soreness.)
None other than the great Roger Federer, who had lost to Nadal in the finals each of the three previous trips to Roland Garros, took full advantage to win. And in the process, he completed his career grand slam—something No. 1 ranked Novak Djokovic has yet to claim.
There’s been no such opportunity since 2009, though, as Nadal, now with a 66–1 career record at the only clay-court major, has taken the last five to give him an unmatched, unprecedented, and unheard-of nine titles in 10 career tries there.
That should stop in 2015, though.
What’s annually been a Nadal-versus-the-field odds to win the tourney has been reversed to wondering if this will finally be Djokovic’s year to finally win—and thus complete the career grand slam.
Nadal, who turns 29 in two weeks, has not been his dominant self this year. After fighting through a wrist injury and appendicitis at the end of 2014 and an ankle injury this spring, the 14-time major champion has a 25–9 record record this year, and his No. 7 ranking is his lowest in more than a decade. The popular Spaniard already has five losses on clay—his ridiculously dominant surface. Previously, he had dropped just 24 total clay matches dating back to when he first turned pro—in 2001. It’s also the first time he enters Roland Garros without a European clay-court title to his name.
If he triumphs this year, it will be his most impressive win yet.
Meanwhile Djokovic, who won the Australian Open in January, enters the tourney on fire—23 straight wins and a 35–2 record overall this year. He’s won all 10 clay-court matches he’s played in and has a 5–1 combined record against Federer and Andy Murray—the second- and third-ranked players in the world.
It’s also been Djokovic who has played Nadal the closest at Roland Garros in years past, losing in the finals in 2014 and 2012 and the semis in 2013—a five-set thriller that Nadal won 9–7 in the fifth.
But the two won’t be headed for a finals or even semifinals showdown this year, as Nadal’s No. 6 seeding puts him on a collision course with Djokovic in the quarters—a much-anticipated potential rematch that Djokovic surely has marked on his calendar. The wait will soon be over and a new champ will likely be crowned, but no one will ever dominate Roland Garros like a healthy Nadal once did.