When I look at him play this year, I constantly check my calendar to verify that this is 2015. His Tennis looks similar to his style in 2011 when he gained the top spot after winning 43 matches in succession. He is aggressive, is making everybody – from Federer to Murray – look ordinary. He decimated Nadal in Monte-Carlo masters and looks on course to win his first French Open if he remains fit.
A lot has changed in his demeanor on the court since his marriage. He is looking to finish games quicker, and keep matches short. This is evident by the fact that he lost on 3 service games in Rome enroute the finals. These service games lost resulted in loss of 3 sets – one each to Nishikori, Bellucci, and Almagro. If you only looked at the score you would be awed and appreciative of the opponent, but if you looked at the macthes and have followed his career, you would say – ‘Hmmm, Thats typical Djokovic.’
Although he will be the favorite to win the French Open, he will be concerned about his losses to Nadal here in the past. Last year even when Nadal was not the favourite, and Djokovic was ahead in the finals, he went on to lose the French Open. Then there is the little issue in the semi-finals of 2013 where he was in complete control of the match, but he went on to touch the net and lose a winning point in the third set. There was a complete momentum swing and we had Nadal in the finals. We expect these top players to not wilt under pressure, but they do.
By his standards he has had a very poor year. It all started with the loss to Berdych in the Australian Open. His first loss to the man in 9 years, and he was also served a bagel. They were the warning signs for the year ahead. A loss to Fognini on clay further dampened his mojo, and in Miami he humbly confessed about his confidence issues, and ever since the media. The media would not leave him alone anymore, and he has struggled since.
On his favorite clay in Madrid, even the crowd could not back him to win against Murray in the final. And in Rome, Wawrinka blew him apart after saving 4 set points in the first set. There was a similar pattern to the second set in both the matches – Nadal fought really hard in the first set, and after losing the first set he started with an even poorer start in the second set. Giving away an early break was never going to help him. However, he will still go in as the second favorite (if not the favorite) to win the French Open, according to the all time great Roger Federer. And Roger knows why he made that statement.
It has to do with the match timings and clay type in Roland Garros. The overhead sun in the afternoon makes the clay drier, and gives Nadal more time to control his forehands with the amount of topspin he wants on them. Both his losses to Murray and Wawrinka were in the night and at an altitude where the balls fly faster. Besides, he missed the baseline by similar distances – half a foot – in both the matches. This French Open will be his toughest – both mentally and physically.
If he is not in the draw of Djokovic, he will definitely meet him in the finals.
The Brit won his first ATP clay title in Munich and followed it with an emphatic victory over Nadal in Madrid final. His movements on the surface have increased and he is more willing to play from inside the baseline or its vicinity rather than sit back and defend. However, when he has played Djokovic he has looked out of ideas to counter the all-round game that Djokovic possesses.
Murray never lacked athleticism and speed, but with the new confidence to step into the baseline and hit those forehand winners. He is consistently making the points shorter to preserve his fitness. This will add to his advantage in Paris where the clay courts ask for hard fought and long grueling points.
Mauresmo’s addition to his coaching staff has provided a new dimension to his game – the attacking dimension with those flat outright forehand winners. Just like his coach he is beginning to hit the winners more often. Has Mauresmo worked on his forehand to generate the topspin even better? The clay surfaces in Roland Garros will let us know.