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By Erik Gudris | Monday, May 26, 2014

 
Rafael Nadal

After an uneven clay court season, a surprise announcement added yet another piece of intrigue to Rafael Nadal's quest for a ninth French Open title.

Photo Credit: AP

Over the past weekend, a well-known couple in the world of pop entertainment held their wedding dinner at Versailles that was once home to the French aristocracy. It bears reminding that King Louis XVI was forced from his ornate palace just outside Paris at the height of his reign due to the changing tides of history.

French Open: Social Media Erupts Over Nadal's Court Scheduling

A similar shift, but not quite so dramatic, seems to be happening right now to the current reigning king of tennis Rafael Nadal. While returning this week to the site of his greatest glory at Roland Garros should give him and his many fans comfort, instead uneasiness hangs over all. Like the storm clouds hovering over the city, an unsettled forecast awaits Nadal as he seeks his ninth French Open title.

The "King of Clay" has looked rather un-sovereign like during what has been his favorite time each season. Surprise losses to fellow Spaniards David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro in lead-up events followed by a fourth straight defeat at the hands of his chief rival Novak Djokovic in Rome now leaves Nadal entering Paris with his top ranking in jeopardy. On top of all that, Nadal is now scheduled to open his title defense Monday not on the main Chartier stadium but on the second show court arena Lenglen instead.

Back in the day when rulers consulted soothsayers to figure out their next move, some might call that a bad omen. The shift in the accustomed court scheduling for Nadal will likely not mean anything as far as the result goes. But in a clay court season where the unexpected has been the norm for the always detail-oriented Nadal, the change is probably one that shouldn't be a surprise at all.

While many howled on Sunday about what they view as poor scheduling, others cited another popular and lingering view that France hasn't quite yet accepted Nadal as their "monarch" tennis-wise. Even after he claimed his first French Open title as a teenager. While Paris certainly respects Nadal, it may take until he is older and perhaps at the end of his career before they fully embrace him. Let's also remember that the local Parisians, depending on what mood they are in, also have a hard time supporting some of their own players too.

With Nadal looking vulnerable entering his "home" major, the return of the king holding court somewhere else adds only yet another plot line to Rafa's quest. And not just for this year's title. Not only is Nadal trying to hang on to his current crown as World No. 1, but remain in contention for the greatest title of all - "The GOAT".

Roger Federer, for many, continues to hold that distinction. But with Nadal's overwhelming head to head record against the Swiss and being only four major wins away from tying Federer's current 17 Grand Slam victories, the debate that Nadal deserves to be included in that conversation, or the answer to it, rages on. Neither man is far from done from adding more lines to their impressive resumes, but suddenly with the French Open "in play", the prospect of Nadal catching and perhaps surpassing Federer for overall major titles just got a little more difficult and a tad less certain.

After being crowned the "boy-king" with his first title in 2005, Nadal has sat on the throne of Paris every year except one. That was 2009, when a Viking named Robin Soderling stormed the gates as they might say. Since that shock upset five years ago, Nadal has restored order in his house up to the point where we expected to proclaim him champion of Paris not even a month ago. Yet now many are saying this French Open could be Nadal's toughest yet.

Even before Djokovic gets an expected chance at Nadal in the final, Nadal may have to exert more time and effort throughout the two weeks just to get there, especially against those in the early rounds who may suddenly find the prospect of playing Nadal "at home" not as daunting.

The iron grip of Nadal's reign over Roland Garros is being challenged like never before. How he withstands it will determine if he continues to hold onto to the keys to the French kingdom, tennis wise of course, or if he will have to surrender them along with, perhaps, his No. 1 ranking as well. If Nadal does beat Djokovic in the final, and ends his recent losing streak to the Serbian to claim his ninth French Open title, then all of the recent plot twists for Nadal will culminate in a satisfying conclusion, perhaps like something out of an unpublished Victor Hugo novel.

Royal intrigue indeed.

 

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