Combine Rafael Nadal's return from injury with Novak Djokovic's dominant showing at the Australian Open and you have the makings for a great debate: Who should be considered the favorite to win the 2013 French Open?
In an attempt to forecast what many tennis fans believe will be a colossal struggle, let's turn to the tale of the tape.
In one corner, you have world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, winner of three-straight Australian Opens and six Grand Slam titles overall. The 25-year-old Serbian has shown remarkable consistency in reaching six out of the last seven major finals. Djokovic beat Nadal in seven-straight tournament finals (including three Grand Slam finals) between January 2011 and January 2012.
In the other corner stands the "King of Clay" Rafael Nadal. The world No. 5 player has not seen action since the 2012 Wimbledon Championships, missing over 220 days due to a partially torn patella tendon in his left knee.
Nadal's performance in the VTR Open this week will give tennis fans their first glimpse as to how well the 11-time Grand Slam champion has recovered from his injury.
Although the Nadal camp has adjusted their expectations for the time being, a lot will be made about the Spaniard's ability to move on the court. With the French Open on the horizon, his speed and mobility (or lack thereof) are considered by many to be of far more importance than his result this week.
Nadal's head-to-head record with Djokovic stands at 19-14 overall. He is an impressive 13-2 on clay against the current world No. 1.
If Nadal were to enter the French Open completely healthy, he would undoubtedly be favored over Djokovic to retain his crown as the "King of Clay." In fact, he would be favored against the rest of the field. However, Nadal's knee injury has thrown a monkey wrench into the situation.
Fueled by intense competition at the top of the men's game, Grand Slam tennis has become increasingly physical over the past few years. The last two Grand Slam finals had an average match time of 4 hours and 37 minutes. Many of the points featured in these marathon matches between Djokovic and Andy Murray were leg-burning 30-plus ball rallies.
Trying to imagine Nadal running and sliding side-to-side for hours like he did when he was healthy may be a stretch after suffering such a serious knee injury.
With Djokovic's historic victory over Nadal in the longest Grand Slam final match ever (5 hours, 53 minutes) at the 2012 Australian Open, it is safe to say that the world No. 1 would not back down from a long, physical confrontation with the Spaniard. What remains to be seen is if Nadal's knees are up for the challenge.
Djokovic's ability to move the ball around the court is perhaps unparalleled in tennis history, and Nadal will need every ounce of speed and mobility to retrieve what is being thrown at him. A potential matchup in Paris will ultimately come down to Djokovic's offense against Nadal's defense.
Although Nadal has over two months to get in playing shape, Djokovic's ability to keep Nadal on the run leads me to believe that Djokovic is the favorite for the 2013 French Open.
In the 2012 French Open final, Djokovic showed glimpses of what he can do against Nadal on clay by taking eight consecutive games in the third and fourth sets. His sublime shot making and relentless attack left Nadal looking up to his camp with concern written all over his face. A timely rain delay helped break the momentum and allowed Nadal to go back to the drawing board.
Nadal's fighting spirit will be the X-factor in 2013. His never-say-die attitude, sometimes at the risk of his own health, has been the staple of his legendary career and will most likely continue to be just that. Although Djokovic should be considered the favorite to win the tournament, Nadal can never be counted out to win a record eighth French Open Title.
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