ROME • Rafael Nadal remains the “No. 1 favourite” for Roland Garros, rival Novak Djokovic said on Monday, but the Spaniard’s last-eight exit at the Italian Open showed he can be beaten on clay.
Nadal, a 12-time French Open winner, lost to world No. 15 Diego Schwartzman last week.
“Even though he lost (in Rome), I still think, a lot of people will agree, he’s the No. 1 favourite and, the record that he has there, the history of his results, you just can’t put anybody in front of him,” said Djokovic.
The world No. 1 beat Argentinian Schwartzman 7-5, 6-3 in Monday’s final to win a fifth Rome title, and a record 36th Masters crown to move one better than Nadal.
“But, you know, definitely Diego showed that Nadal is beatable on clay,” added the Serb.
Conditions at the French Open, which begins on Sunday, could also have an impact, with the tournament pushed back to autumn because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Nadal “prefers high bounces, that it is hot, that the ball goes fast”, said Djokovic, the French Open champion in 2016.
“So let’s see. It’s going to be interesting. I think even though he’s the No. 1 favourite, there are players that can win against him there.”
Agreeing, Schwartzman said: “Rafa is the king. It’s his house. He went to Roland Garros many years playing good, sometimes not playing his best, and he won.”
Despite a great start, with two breaks to lead 3-0, Schwartzman could not keep the momentum going against 17-time Grand Slam winner Djokovic, who notched his fifth win over his rival in the Rome final.
For the Serb, it was a fifth victory in 10 finals in Rome, but the first since 2015, having finished runner-up three times since, including last year to Nadal.
STILL THE MAIN MAN
Even though he lost (in Rome)… he’s the No. 1 favourite and, the record that he has there, the history of his results, you just can’t put anybody in front of him.
NOVAK DJOKOVIC, world No. 1, on Rafael Nadal being top pick for the French Open.
Djokovic said getting back on court for a tournament so quickly after being disqualified at the US Open for striking a line judge with a ball helped him move on.
The 33-year-old came in for heavy criticism at Flushing Meadows earlier this month and he said he spent several days processing what had happened.
“I did experience mentally some ups and downs in the first four, five days after that happened,” he said.
“Obviously I was in shock… but I moved on, I’ve never had an issue in my life to move on regardless of how difficult it is.
“Obviously having a tournament a week after helped a lot because I really wanted to get on the court and get whatever trace of that out of the way.”
Djokovic, who has won 31 of his 32 matches this year, said he would have to raise his game further to challenge for the French Open crown.
“I don’t think I played my best tennis, to be honest, I don’t want to sound arrogant here. I am very satisfied and pleased to win a title. I know I still have a couple of gears,” he added.
“Hopefully I’ll be able to raise that level for the French Open because that’s going to be necessary if I want to go deep in the tournament.”
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS