By Matt Brown in Paris


There were a few question marks about Rafael Nadal's French Open title defence a couple of weeks ago as he began the Rome Masters.

Nadal, who turns 33 midway through Roland Garros, had lost three times on clay this season, dropping semifinals in Monte Carlo to Fabio Fognini, in Barcelona to Dominic Thiem and in Madrid to Stefanos Tsitsipas.


The Spaniard, who struggled with injuries following his run to the Australian Open final, appeared vulnerable with the defence of his Roland Garros title fast approaching.

Nadal, who has lost only twice in 88 matches in Paris since winning the first of his 11 titles, was potentially under threat of going into the year's second Grand Slam as not the clear favourite.

But Rome was always going to be the true gauge as to where he would be at heading into his title defence. The conditions at the Forro Italico are more similar to Paris than the Madrid Masters, which is played at altitude.

Nadal seems to have timed his run perfectly. He was back to his brutal best in Rome, taking a commanding final victory over Nadal Djokovic 6-0, 4-6, 6-1, that confirmed the "King of Clay" as title favourite once again.

He has a virtual monopoly on Roland Garros and in best of five sets matches on clay he is just about impossible to beat, boasting a 111-2 record.

Nadal has a good draw; he will face qualifiers in the first and second rounds, with former top 10 ranked Belgian David Goffin looming as potentially the first real test in round three.

His main challenge is expected to come from Djokovic, and perhaps Thiem, who was last year's runner-up. Djokovic has won all three Grand Slams he has contested since his shock quarter-final defeat here to Italian Marco Cecchinato last year. The Serbian is bidding to become the second man in history to hold all four Grand Slam titles on two separate occasions, and is also striving to become the third man after Roy Emerson and Rod Laver to have won each Grand Slam on two or more occasions.

Djokovic will probably have to overcome the hurdle of Thiem in the semifinals however. The Austrian won on clay in Barcelona last month, including that impressive victory over Nadal. He also claimed the Masters 1000 title at Indian Wells in March.


There are other threats, not least from young Greek star Tsitsipas, the Australian Open semifinalist who could meet Roger Federer in the quarter-finals. Federer is back at Roland Garros for the first time in four years and while he is unlikely to seriously challenge for the title, he played well enough in Madrid and Rome to suggest he could go deep. The likes of Fognini and former champion Stan Wawrinka are also threats.

There's a spectacular new look Philippe Chatrier centre court, that will be completed next year with the addition of a roof. A new 5000-seat show court has been built in the nearby adjoining botanical gardens.

Despite the changes, one constant remains, Rafael Nadal's domination of this tournament since 2005 is showing no sign of ending any time soon.

Matt Brown is in Paris thanks to Emirates Airlines