PARIS: Rafael Nadal can become the first man to win the same Grand Slam title eight times at the French Open, but the Spaniard may have to get past Novak Djokovic before he even contemplates history.
Having pulled clear of Bjorn Borg’s record of six wins at Roland Garros with a seventh championship in 2012, the 26-year-old has already confounded the critics who had written him off during a seventh-month injury absence.
Since his return to the tour in February, Nadal has shaken off the heartbreak of missing the Olympics, as well as the US and Australian Opens, to collect six titles from eight finals.
But he is keen to play down the hype at the French Open, especially after Friday’s draw placed him in the same half as top seed Djokovic, which means that one of them will definitely not be playing in the June 9 final.
“To talk about numbers, to talk about history, you have to analyze when somebody finishes his career, not in the middle,” said Nadal at a chilly, damp Roland Garros where he is the third seed.
“To play at Roland Garros always is a special feeling and I feel very emotional every time that I am back here.”
No man has ever collected more than seven titles at the same major.
Roy Emerson, with six, is the Australian Open’s most successful while William Renshaw, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer all triumphed at Wimbledon seven times each.
Bill Larned, Bill Tilden and Richard Sears were seven-time winners at the US Open.
Since his French Open debut in 2005, Nadal has only lost once in Paris—an injury-hit fourth round exit to free-hitting Robin Soderling in 2009. His record stands at 52 wins against just that single blip against the Swede.
This year, Nadal may have lost his Monte Carlo Masters title to Djokovic after an eight-year monopoly, but he swept to victory on clay in Madrid and Rome, where he allowed Federer just four games in the final.
Nadal, playing in his first Grand Slam event since a shock second round exit to Lukas Rosol at Wimbledon last year sent him home to Manacor for lengthy rehabilitation, begins his campaign against Germany’s Daniel Brands, the world number 60.
Australian Open champion Djokovic, beaten in last year’s final by Nadal, starts against Belgium’s David Goffin, who reached the last 16 in 2012 after coming through qualifying.
Federer, seeded two and the 2009 champion, has lost four title matches to Nadal in Paris but enjoyed the better fortune in Friday’s draw where his first two opponents will both be qualifiers.
Djokovic, who captured the season’s opening major in Australia, needs a French Open to join Nadal and Federer as active players to have completed a career Grand Slam.
But he has endured a bitter-sweet relationship with Roland Garros, seeing a 41-match winning streak ended by Federer in the semifinals there in 2011 before losing the 2012 final to Nadal.
Having relieved Nadal of his Monte Carlo title in April, Djokovic lost his Madrid opener to Grigor Dimitrov and then slumped to a quarterfinals loss in Rome to Tomas Berdych.
“This is the tournament that is the number one priority this year. This is where I want to win and I’m going to go for it. I think my game is there, and I’m very, very motivated,” said Djokovic.
But with a losing 15-19 record against Nadal, the Serb was wary of allowing the Spaniard, against whom he has lost four times in four at the French Open, to get into his head.
At his pre-tournament media conference, Djokovic banned all talk of the possibility of facing Nadal in the semifinals.
After world number two Andy Murray, a semi-finalist two years ago, pulled out to nurse his injured back ahead of Wimbledon, Nadal and Djokovic should have their only serious rival in Federer, the record 17-time Grand Slam title winner.
But Federer, with his 32nd birthday fast approaching, heads to Paris not having won a trophy in the year for the first time since 2000.
The world number three is playing in a 54th consecutive Grand Slam event, just two off the record held by South Africa’s Wayne Ferreira.
“It’s incredible. I never thought I was going to play that many, have that many opportunities to do well at the slams,” said the Swiss.
“But they don’t buy me victories.”