May 15, 2017
What seemed impossible a year ago is looking increasingly likely as the European summer hots up.
Rafael Nadal will win the French Open, then Roger Federer will win Wimbledon.
That’s the way it’s heading if you take into account the remarkable events of 2017 so far.
After all, Nadal just beat Dominic Thiem 7-6 (10-8), 6-4 to claim his fifth Madrid title. He is 15-0 on clay this year and seems unstoppable.
Federer may not even play Roland Garros, opting perhaps to save himself for the grass instead, so that he can be super-fresh for the big one – Wimbledon 2017.
Nadal, if he wins a tenth Roland Garros, probably won’t have quite enough left in the tank to take the Wimbledon title too.
That physical and emotional journey would be asking a lot of a man who has only just returned to his best after years of struggle.
So who can beat Federer at Wimbledon? Not Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray on present form. Those recent champions and giants of the game are going through a sticky patch.
Some might suggest that, barring a dramatic return to form by Andy and Novak, Federer could simply storm through to take the title he craves most – Wimbledon.
It’s written in the stars, people are saying, just as the general feeling is that Nadal should certainly triumph in Paris.
Nadal is now the best performer of 2017, by virtue of Federer’s absence on clay. Roger is a close second, even though he beat Rafa in three early finals this year.
Together they are currently a cut above the rest – and they should fulfil their destiny at Roland Garros and Wimbledon 2017.
But sport just isn’t that simple, is it? Imagine the pressure Rafa now faces as he goes into Paris. Everyone assumes he is about to claim a fifteenth Grand Slam. That’s not helpful to the great man, is it?
Indeed, Rafa would be doing himself a favour if he lost in Rome this week, just to shed some of that massive weight of expectation. He is dominant on clay. But he isn’t superhuman – not like before.
After all, Nadal didn’t exactly destroy Thiem in their enthralling final in Madrid. The Austrian had chances to take the first-set tie-break, and could have levelled in the second set before Rafa closed out.
Growing in confidence, and the third-best performer of 2017, Thiem seems stress-free. He keeps a low profile. He says the right things when asked. He is quiet and humble, and there is no pressure on him whatsoever.
Yet Thiem could be about to make a stunning breakthrough – and there will be plenty of others gunning for Nadal in Paris if Dominic doesn’t come again.
It will be the same for Federer at Wimbledon. Remember last year, when we were sure that Roger would win through against Milos Raonic to face Murray in the dream final?
Instead Federer let his big chance slip through his fingers, and it was the emotionally drained Canadian who faced Murray.
So yes, Nadal should win the French and Federer should win Wimbledon. But their stunning success so far this year, contrasting sharply with the poor form of Djokovic and Murray, makes life tougher for them in some ways.
The big four has temporarily become the big two. All the focus and therefore all the pressure is now on just two legends, who have lit up 2017 with their sparkling form.
They are used to pressure. But maybe not this much, not for a while, and not at such an advanced stage of their careers.
It will be fascinating to see how they handle it.
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