Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - In less than a week, the second Grand Slam event of the year will swing into action in Paris.
The French Open/Roland Garros will commence Sunday and the legendary Rafael Nadal will be on hand as the reigning four-time champion. But is he the favorite this time around?
Recent results on the ATP World Tour would suggest Novak Djokovic, not the reigning French and U.S. Open champion Nadal, should be the pre-tournament favorite in the "City of Light."
Rafa has not been playing his best tennis during the European clay season, which, of course, has been his bread and butter for years.
This year has been a different story for the current world No. 1 star as he's produced just one title in four European dirt events. He came out on top at the Madrid Masters just two weeks ago but didn't have to beat Djokovic, Roger Federer or Andy Murray in order to do so.
In stunning fashion, Rafa failed to get past the quarterfinals in back-to- back events in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, where he's won a boatload of titles at both tourneys. And in both of those events, he gave way to fellow Spaniards, David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro, in the quarterfinals. Nadal easily beat Ferrer in last year's French Open finale.
And this past weekend at the Rome Masters (Italian Open), Djokovic outdueled his great rival Nadal in three sets in the final for a second straight year. Nadal is a whopping seven-time champion in Rome, while Djokovic is now a three- time winner after capturing his first clay court title of 2014.
Note: The six-time Grand Slam champion Djokovic has now won five of the last six Masters 1000 events.
For the record, Djokovic has now beaten Nadal in their last four overall meetings, but Nadal is still 13-4 lifetime versus Nole on clay.
In case you didn't know, Djokovic still needs a French Open title to complete a career Grand Slam and join his contemporaries Federer and Nadal for that most coveted tennis distinction.
Does anyone besides Nadal and Djokovic have a shot at the 2014 French? Recent history would suggest no, although one name does come to mind ... Stan Wawrinka.
"Stan the Man" is the most recent Grand Slam champion, having stunned a hobbled Nadal at this year's Australian Open to capture his first career major championship. The sweet-swinging Swiss star also came out on top recently in Monte Carlo to secure his first-ever Masters shield. He beat the iconic Federer in a rare all-Swiss final at that particular event, where Djokovic was the reigning champ and Nadal had titled a remarkable eight straight years from 2005-12.
Does Federer have a shot at nailing down a second career French Open title? I say no as long as Nadal, Djokovic and Wawrinka remain healthy over the next few weeks.
Yes, Federer is the men's all-time leader with 17 Grand Slam crowns, but his heyday is clearly a thing of the past. For years, he had to contend with Nadal at the French, losing to the mighty Spaniard in no less than four finals in Paris. And now he has to deal with Nadal ... Djokovic ... Wawrinka and perhaps even Murray, who's certainly a threat at every major, of course, with the exception, maybe, of Roland Garros, where he's only ever reached one semifinal, and that was three years ago already.
Murray has been trying to relocate his formidable game since returning to the tour this year following minor back surgery last September. The British star also recently cut ties with coach Ivan Lendl and is still seeking his first title anywhere since becoming the first British men's singles champion at Wimbledon in 77 years last July. That's 10 months ago if you're counting.
The two-time major champion Murray is no slouch on clay, but it is without question his least-favorite surface, which doesn't help his cause against the slew of aforementioned stars.
The also-rans in Paris will be the likes of Ferrer, Tomas Berdych, Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov.
Ferrer is always a safe bet to reach the second week at any major, but he's never had the firepower to overtake any of the other big boys in a best-of- five-set affair over a two-week span. He reached his first-ever Slam final a year ago in Paris, only to get peppered by the amazing Nadal.
Berdych is a former Wimbledon runner-up (to Nadal) and has only ever trekked into one French Open semi, and that was four years ago. Since then, the strapping Czech has failed to reach a quarterfinal at the French, including stunning first-round losses in 2011 and last year.
Raonic, Nishikori and Dimitrov are still the future of men's tennis. None of these fellas have really made a splash yet at the majors, but I believe Raonic and Dimitrov are still breakout stars waiting to happen. The Canadian slugger Raonic possesses arguably the best service game on the planet, while his fellow 23-year-old Dimitrov has been compared to Federer and reached his first-ever Masters semifinal just last week in the Italian capital.
Nishikori is a nice player, a real nice player, but I can't imagine him finishing on top in an event when all of the above mentioned players are on hand.
Are there any dark horses outside the top 12 or so players in the world?
There is not.
There will be only two former Roland Garros champions on hand in Paris (Nadal and Federer). The last player not named Nadal or Federer to title at the French was Argentine Gaston Gaudio back in 2004.
I know Nadal has won four straight and eight of the last nine titles and is an insane 59-1 lifetime at Roland Garros, but I, like many, believe it's finally Djokovic's turn this time around in Paris. I can see a Nadal-Djokovic final, with the Serb dethroning the "King of Clay" in four sets to lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires. Nole was the runner-up to Rafa there two years ago.
The draw will be revealed Friday in the French capital.
P.S. Where have you gone, Robin Soderling?