Paris:Until last weekend the prospect of Rafael Nadal losing a match for the first time at the French Open in Paris this month looked about as likely as Manchester United being relegated next season.
But his gruelling Madrid Masters semi-final win over Novak Djokovic followed by his straight sets loss in the final to Roger Federer has given renewed hope to those who covet his claycourt crown.
The Big Four
Nadal-Federer-Murray-Djokovic --- comprise the established pecking order going into the French Open
ROGER FEDERER (SUI x2) --- Against Nadal 7-13
The Swiss maestro's stunning 6-4, 6-4 Madrid win over Nadal was only his second in 11 encounters on clay over the Spaniard. It also was his first over him in 18 months during which he lost three Grand Slam finals. That will undoubtedly have given Federer a huge lift, but the gap between himself and Nadal at Roland Garros has been steadily widening culminating in last year's embarrassingly one-sided 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 hammering.
NOVAK DJOKOVIC (SRB x4) --- Against Nadal 4-14
Djokovic has been steadily getting closer to upsetting Nadal thoughout the year and only the Spaniard's never-say-die attitude staved off defeat in their classic Madrid semi-final. The problem for the Serb though is that Nadal's game is the perfect match for the Roland Garros centre-court and it will be best of five sets meaning he will need to win three sets not just two. There have been question marks in the past over Djokovic's stamina.
ANDY MURRAY (GBR x3) --- Against Nadal 2-7
Defeated Nadal in four sets last September on his way to the US Open final and beat him again in the Rotterdam in February taking the deciding set 6-0. The Scot looks to be a real threat for the world No.1 on hardcourts and grass, but he admits himself he is least effective on clay and the best of five sets format at the French Open will work against him.
Verdasco-Ferrer --- like Nadal brought up on and at home on clay, it's just that he plays it better then them.
FERNANDO VERDASCO (ESP x8) --- Against Nadal 0-9
One of the most improved players on the ATP circuit in the last year, the Madrid man gave Nadal a terrific run for his money in the Australian Open semi-finals before losing in five sets. Verdasco has the fitness amd stamina to slug it out with Nadal, but he won only three games against him at last year's French Open and has yet to defeat him in nine attempts.
DAVID FERRER (ESP x14) --- Against Nadal 3-7
The "bulldozer" has lost some of his power over the last year drifting out of the world top 10, but has beaten Nadal before on big occasions notably at the 2007 US Open and Masters Cup. He even has a rare claycourt win over his compatriot but that was in their first meeting back in 2004. Did reasonably well against him in the final in Barcelona last month.
Tsonga-Simon --- both top tenners and they will once again enjoy the home support that propelled Gael Monfils into the semis last year.
JO-WILFRIED TSONGA (FRA x9) --- Against Nadal 1-3
Hugely popular in France, Tsonga inflicted one of his heaviest defeats on Nadal when he trounced him in straight sets in the 2007 Australian Open semi-final. Claycourts though are a harder ask for him. Tsonga is unlikely to opt for a war of attrition if he goes up against Nadal relying instead on his big serve and booming forehand to hit quick winners.
GILLES SIMON (FRA x7) --- Against Nadal 1-3
The opposite to Tsonga in that he favours a tactical waiting game using his positional sense and change of pace to force errors from his opponents. Managed a hard-earned win over Nadal at the Madrid Masters last year but went down in straight sets at this year's Australian Open. Has yet to face up to him on clay though as he has yet to get past the second round at Roland Garros.
Pick of the rest
Del Potro-Wawrinka --- The last time there was an upset winner in the French Open was Argentina's Gaston Gaudio in 2004, the year prior to the start of the Nadal era.
JUAN MARTIN DEL POTRO (ARG x5) --- Against Nadal 1-4
The big Argentinian is seen by many as a potential arch rival for Nadal in the years ahead. Has added muscle to his lanky frame in the last year and has shot up the world rankings to a career best fifth. Scored a morale-boosting first win over Nadal in the Miami Masters in early April. More than two years younger than Nadal his full potential has yet to be realised
STANISLAS WAWRINKA (SUI x 18) --- Against Nadal 0-4
The other world class player from Switzerland has come on in leaps and bounds in the last year and ousted his famous compatriot Federer at Monte Carlo last month before running Djokovic close in the semis. Has yet to win a set off Nadal in four tries but did take him to two tie-breaks at the Miami Masters this year.