All eyes on Djokovic, Nadal at 2011 French Open

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal both have reason to like their

chances at the French Open.

Djokovic is unbeaten so far in 2011, a 37-0 record that includes

seven titles from seven tournaments and victories over Nadal in

finals the past two weeks on clay – the surface used at Roland

Garros.

Nadal, for his part, can derive confidence from his success at

past French Opens: He is 38-1 with five titles over his career at

the year’s second Grand Slam tournament.

When play begins in Paris on Sunday, the focus squarely will be

on those two men – No. 1-ranked Nadal of Spain and No. 2-ranked

Djokovic of Serbia – and whether they will meet in the June 5

final.

Roger Federer’s only-by-his-high-standards slump is among the

other stories of interest. A wide-open women’s draw is missing both

Williams sisters but features Kim Clijsters’ first French Open

appearance since 2006, Maria Sharapova’s bid to win the only Grand

Slam title missing from her resume, and top-ranked Caroline

Wozniacki’s pursuit of her first major championship.

The main questions, though, concern Djokovic and Nadal.

Can Djokovic win his second consecutive Grand Slam title and

break John McEnroe’s Open era record for best start to a season,

42-0 in 1984?

”He is playing fantastic,” Nadal acknowledged.

Can Nadal equal Swedish great Bjorn Borg’s record of six French

Open championships?

”Let us be clear: He is the ‘King of Clay,’ and he is the best

player ever to play on this surface,” Djokovic said about

Nadal.

Hard to argue with that.

Since the start of the 2005 season, Nadal is 193-8 on clay,

including an 81-match victory run during one stretch. At Roland

Garros, he’s won 113 of 123 sets in his six previous appearances,

and his only loss came to two-time French Open runner-up Robin

Soderling of Sweden in the fourth round in 2009.

As none other than 16-time Grand Slam champion Federer put it at

the start of the European clay-court season: ”Look, we all know

how good Rafa is on this surface.”

Indeed, Djokovic is the only player to beat Nadal twice in one

season on the slow, red stuff, accomplishing that with straight-set

victories in the championship matches in Madrid and Rome this

month.

Entering this season, Djokovic was a combined 13-29 against

Nadal and Federer, the two players who have finished ahead of him

in the rankings the past four years. But he’s 7-0 against them in

2011, losing a total of only three sets in those matches.

Djokovic’s 4-0 record against Nadal was compiled entirely in

tournament finals, and they only could meet at that stage at the

French Open, too. If they do, it would be a rematch of September’s

U.S. Open final, which Nadal won for his ninth Grand Slam title and

third in a row.

Djokovic stopped that streak by winning the Australian Open in

January for his second major trophy. Now, thanks to his remarkable

start to this season, Djokovic could replace Nadal atop the ATP

rankings for the first time. To remain at No. 1, Nadal must win the

French Open and have Djokovic lose before the final, according to

the ATP World Tour. Another way to look at it: If Nadal fails to

take home the title, Djokovic will become No. 1 – no matter what he

does in Paris.

For so long, it was 2009 French Open champion Federer who owned

that top ranking and who was the center of attention at Grand Slam

tournaments.

But as he approaches his 30th birthday in August, Federer is no

longer the dominant figure that he was. After reaching 23

consecutive major semifinals, he was upset by Soderling in the

French Open quarterfinals last year, then lost to Tomas Berdych of

the Czech Republic in the Wimbledon quarterfinals.

Those were followed by losses to Djokovic in the semifinals at

both the U.S. Open and Australian Open, which means Federer enters

this French Open in his longest Grand Slam drought since winning

his first major title at Wimbledon in 2003.

”Roger is still playing great. A couple of guys have stepped

up, and Novak and Nadal right now are hitting their prime,” said

Pete Sampras, whose record of 14 career Grand Slam titles was

broken by Federer in 2009. ”Roger – he’ll find his way.”

Federer has won at least one Grand Slam title in each of the

past eight seasons, tying a record shared by Sampras and Borg. All

streaks eventually end.

Djokovic is hoping his will last at least another seven matches,

which would be enough to give him his first French Open

championship, his third Grand Slam title overall, the No. 1

ranking, and a 44-0 record in 2011, two better than McEnroe managed

27 years ago.

”This is really, potentially, a monumental effort. If he were

to win the French, he could almost lock up the (year-end) No. 1

player in the world,” McEnroe said. ”This has been rather

amazing.”

AP Sports Writers Andrew Dampf in Rome and Jerome Pugmire in

Monaco contributed to this report.

Howard Fendrich can be reached at

http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich