5/24/2017 8:05:26 AM

PLAY ON CLAY!

PLAY ON CLAY!

THE hustle and bustle of build-up events is over, and it is time for big guns to deliver at the French Open,  which begins on May 28.

The Parisian clay has always been a happy hunting ground for Rafael Nadal, who has won a record nine times at the Roland Garros. Despite his shock defeat to Austria’s rising star Dominic Thiem at the Italian Open quarterfinal last week, Nadal looks the firm favourite to win a record-extending 10th title at the season’s second Grand Slam.

“I’m happy with how I played during these four weeks. Every tournament is important for me. Now remains Roland Garros,” Nadal said after his loss to Thiem.

The Spaniard’s clay-court form has been awesome, to say the least, as he won three — Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid — of the four contested.

His main rivals and world’s top two players Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic are woefully out of form while his nemesis Roger Federer has opted out of playing on a surface which has never suited his style of play.

That leaves former champion Stan Wawrinka and the Gen Next duo Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev as his main challengers.

Thiem is one player who Nadal himself has singled out for praise in recent times.

Nadal beat the 23-year-old at both Barcelona and Madrid finals before succumbing to him at Rome, which ended the 30-year-old’s 17-match unbeaten run on clay.

The defeat to Thiem was the kind of wake-up call Nadal needed before the French Open and he was quick to admit it.

“It’s normal that one day you don’t feel perfect and your opponent plays unbelievably well,” said Nadal.

Though Thiem lost to Djokovic in the Rome semifinal, he caught the eyes for his single-handed backhand, which he wields with power and precision to keep his opponents on the backfoot and catch them off-guard.

And Thiem is certainly hoping to draw inspiration after beating Nadal on his preferred surface.

“He’s the kind of player who never gives up, probably the best fighter in the sport. Especially on clay it’s for sure, one of the toughest things to beat him.”

Juan Martin del Potro and David Goffin are other possible contenders, but it would really need a miracle to stop a rampaging Nadal, known as King of Clay, on his favourite surface. DSP

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