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'King of Clay' Nadal can make it a Roland Garros treble

Djokovic, Federer and a bunch of young talents like Thiem stand in the way of his French Open hat-trick.

Rolex Testimonee Dominic Thiem during the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters 2019.

AS the "Big Three" entrench themselves into the 30s agewise, inadvertently they are supposed to loosen their tennis grip on command play.

But while a bunch of upstarts waits in the wings to bring about a reshuffle of the tennis cards in the major tournaments, the terrific trio continues to make a statement of dominance.

Roger Federer, 37, Rafael Nadal nudging 33, and Novak Djokovic, 32 have ruled the tennis world for almost two decades, with the trio amassing a whopping total of 52 Grand Slams during that golden period.

And going by Spaniard Nadal's majestic triumph in the recent Italian Open over Djokovic, the winner the previous week at Madrid, and Federer's form (though hampered by a slight injury), you cannot but accept that they are not easily going to abdicate their lofty positions.

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Age, weary limbs, monotonous fatigue setting in as the matches wear on, and a catalogue of injuries in their latter years, normally make the veteran sporting greats vulnerable.

And this is especially so in the current tennis world where a hungry and eager younger lot wait in the wings, namely Stefanos Tsitsipas and Dominic Thiem, both Rolex Testimonees.

Tsitsipas is an aggressive baseliner, who hits powerful groundstroke winners and has a particularly strong forehand. Armed with a big serve and his signature one-handed backhand, he would give anyone a good run for the money.

Of Tsitsipas, who failed to lift his third trophy of the year after victories in Estoril and Marseille when he lost to Djokovic in Madrid, the celebrated Serb said: "He's very talented.

"He beat Rafa the day previous and I think they finished the match around midnight. I could see he was not as dynamic in his movements, probably due to the long match. But he's had a terrific week."

The gregarious Greek, only 20, has transformed himself from hunter to the hunted after a breakout Australian Open semi-final, Marseille title and Dubai final in 2019.

Thiem, 25, is also an aggressive baseline player, with solid groundstrokes that can mesmerise opponents. He also often employs a top-spin serve for both his first and second serves, resulting in a relatively slow, but looping, serve that forces his opponents back.

Loving clay

In recent seasons, the Austrian has produced pulsating tennis and the French Open runner-up to Nadal last year must feel he is in prime position for another long run. He said: "I really love clay. I grew up on it. I'm moving really well on that surface."

But when it comes to clay and the French Open, grand fleeting images of world No. 2 Rafael Nadal keep repeating on our minds. Captured in those images are snapshots about Nadal's forehand top spin that falls within the inner tramline and leaves his opponent stranded at the baseline.

And snapshots about how he then drops his racket, falls backwards, and regains his poise to kiss the clay surface before pacing up to shake hands with the vanquished. His shirt is muddied in orange colour and he rips off his headband and waves to an appreciative crowd.

We have seen the King of Clay do it a record 11 times at Roland Garros with those imposing surreal images since his mercurial French Open debut in 2005.

As the 123rd edition of the famous tennis Major is underway in Paris, despite some hiccups, Nadal remains a strong favourite on clay because he holds the longest French Open winning streak by any male player since the Open era in 1968 - 81 victories between April 2005 and May 2007.

And his demolition of Djokovic in Rome last week, with a ruthless streak of forehand firepower and double-handed volley winners in the 6-0, 4-6, 6-1 triumph, showed that he is the man to watch in Paris.

World No. 3 Federer, 20-time Major winner who won his only French Open in 2009, returned to the event for the first time since 2015. The Swiss maestro's intention to return had sound meaning when, after suffering a shock fourth-round defeat by Tsitsipas in the fourth round of the Australian Open in January, he said: "I'm in a phase where I want to have fun. I will play at Roland Garros."

But a question remains about his right leg injury which caused him to concede his match against Tsitsipas in the quarter-finals in Rome last week.

World No. 1 Djokovic displayed a masterclass and stamped a statement when he defeated Tsitsipas in the Madrid final early this month, the Serb's 33rd ATP Masters 1000 crown. "These are the best tournaments. I wasn't playing my best tennis after Australia, so I was looking to regain the momentum. I played some of my best tennis here," said Djokovic, the 15-time Grand Slam champion.

But despite some marvellous shots in the second set, he seemed affected by the long three-setters in his previous two matches (against Juan Martin del Potro and Diego Schwartzman) and caved in to imperious Nadal. All the three megastars cruised through their first-round matches early this week.

Waiting in the wings to pull the carpet from under the feet of the big guns are three other talented players, namely Italian Fabio Fognini and the seasoned warriors Stan Wawrinka, Federer's longtime Davis Cup partner from Switzerland, and Argentinian Juan Martin del Potro, a Rolex Testimonee. Fognini had a majestic title run in Monte Carlo, including beating Nadal and German Alexander Zverev in straight sets. He displays a swagger and confidence that make the 31-year-old feel on par with anyone when stepping on court. Last night, he beat countryman Andreas Seppi 6-3, 6-0, 3-6, 6-3.

Eighth seed del Potro survived a scare against world No. 58 Nicolas Jarry to beat the Chilean 3-6, 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 in the first round last night.

Two others in the reckoning are Japan's Kei Nishikori, French Open quarter-finalist in 2015 and 2017, and Marin Cilic, 2014 US Open winner and quarter-finalist at the French Open the last two years.

Different mindset

The clay surface asks for different shoes, occasionally looser strings, extra socks and an altered mindset. And one person who knows that is Wawrinka, the French Open champion in 2015.

His world No. 27 ranking may seem out of place, considering that he has had some glowing displays at the Majors. For with his glorious backhand and high-risk rocket shots, Stan is one Man you disregard at your own peril.

Wawrinka showed superior service in his beating of Slovakia's tall Jozef Kovalik by 6-1, 6-7 (3-7), 6-2, 6-3 in the first round last Monday.

The legendary American former Major winner Pete Sampras once said: "I play my best tennis on instinct, but on clay I tend to over-think it. Do I want to come in? Do I not want to come in?".

So decision-making is so very crucial at Roland Garros. Going by that yardstick, currently, Nadal, easy winner the last two years, is set to make it a Golden Treble.