Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic began their bid for the French Open title with routine first round victories on Monday in Paris.
Djokovic may have lost the Rome Masters final to Nadal but the world no 1 can take solace from the fact that in Paris history may just be about to repeat itself, as both men got their Roland Garros title campaign off to the most straightforward of starts.
Following Federer’s heralded return after four years away on Sunday, it was the turn of the world’s top two to take centre stage on Monday. Nadal was the first to appear, chasing a remarkable 12th French Open, he had few problems in seeing off Yannick Hanfmann is just under a couple of hours.
Nadal’s 6-2 6-1 6-2 victory over the world No 180 was enough to see him through to a second round meeting with another German qualifier in Yannick Maden, while Djokovic needed even less time to account for the big-serving Hurkacz with a 6-4 6-2 6-2 victory.
Both men will fancy their chances of holding the La Coupe des Mousquetaires trophy in just under two weeks time, and for each proven champion, there is more than just a title at stake.
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Three years ago, the all-conquering Djokovic headed to Roland Garros on the back of defeat in the Rome final but with three Grand Slam titles tucked away and his status as the world’s best player in no doubt.
In 2016, Djokovic lost to Andy Murray in Rome but went on to beat the same man and claim his first, and only, French Open title – with it becoming the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four majors at the same time and complete his career Grand Slam.
It’s been quite a journey in the intervening 35 months but Djokovic, who celebrated his 32nd birthday last Wednesday, remarkably has the same target in mind after beating Nadal to win the Australian Open.
Heading to Wimbledon last year, you would have got long odds on Djokovic claiming the next three slams, but that is exactly what the Serb has done and may be about to do for a second time – something that seemed a long way off when his form and seemingly passion for the sport had nosedived.
This time around, Nadal is likely to be a more formidable presence, underlined by his title triumph in Rome last weekend and the most routine of victories in Monday’s first round.
The Spaniard withdrew injured from his third round match in Djokovic’s title-winning 2016 campaign, and the world no 1 is likely to have to overcome the Spaniard if history is to repeat itself – they’ve met in two French Open finals and Nadal has won them both.
Djokovic, and the rest of the field, come up against the fearsome prospect of Nadal, with the extraordinary tally of 11 French Open titles to his name. He has lost just twice since storming to the title on his Roland Garros debut as a teenager full of ripping muscle, tank tops and bandanas in 2015.
Defeat number three never looked remotely in the offing on day two in Paris – as it stands only Robin Soderling and Djokovic in the 2015 quarter-finals are the only men to beat Nadal in the tournament.
The Spaniard’s dominance on the dirt has prevented Djokovic and Federer underpinning their legend with more than just a single Paris crown, such is his clay dominance and despite concerns of his form, a first title of the year in Italy would suggest he has found form at just the right time.
Like Djokovic, the sole French Open title in Federer’s glittering collection of 101 career titles came in the absence of Nadal – such has been the case of Nadal’s dominance that Federer has taken to having the clay season off rather than put his ageing limbs through the torture.
20 years on from his French Open debut and four years on from his last French Open, it’s been different this year for Federer. For one the Swiss great has played the clay-court swing, whether that proves significant remains to be seen.
Come the end of the year we will know if it’s been part of a farewell tour or if he genuinely fancies his chances in an event where he has lost four finals. His last final in Paris was in 2011 where he lost to Nadal – of course he did.
A sole title came in 2009, vanquishing Soderling, the man who inflicted one of Nadal’s two defeats at Roland Garros.
That title 10 years ago came after a run of three successive final defeats to Nadal, and for all Federer’s fairytales, a triumph in France over the next fortnight might top the lot.
For all the talk of new dawns, the Grand Slams remain the preserve of this iconic trio – they’ve won the last eight and 13 of the last 16 – and the opening two days have underlined that they will be the men to beat again.