Rafael Nadal looked unbelievable in his 6-2, 6-2, 6-0 win today over Denis Istomin. Nadal was never in trouble and finished the match on his serve with crushing forehand winners. Rafa looks ready to win his seventh French Open title to pass Bjorn Borg. Besides Federer, Djokovic, and Murray can anyone derail Rafa? Even these three players would be underdogs.
I believe there are a few guys that could catch Rafa by surprise and give him real problems. Nadal's only loss at the French was to Robin Soderling who was hitting winners off both sides. Soderling put Rafa on the defensive with an aggressive, first-strike style from the baseline. Is there anyone in this draw that can give Nadal similar headaches in the 2012 French Open?
Under the right circumstances I feel there is a short list of players that could beat Rafa on the clay. Now, let's step back and think about this. I am writing about guys who "could maybe" defeat Nadal if everything goes right. That, in and of itself, is a compliment to the brilliance of Nadal on the red clay. Nonetheless, here are the guys that have the potential to trouble Rafa:
Last year Isner had a 2 sets to 1 lead over Nadal. Rafa never seemed more frustrated at the French than in that match. Isner was the first player to take Nadal to five sets in his career at Roland Garros. Isner has the ability to give Rafa the same kind of problems with his big serve, forehand, and ability to move well for being a big guy. Experience would not be on Isner's side. Nadal and Isner would meet in the semifinals and you would have to think that the physicality of playing on red clay would put Isner at a disadvantage. Plus, Nadal is far less likely to be unprepared and not playing well at the end of the tournament. Isner would be better served to see Rafa earlier in the draw.
Like Isner, Raonic gives his opponent's nightmares because of his first strike, huge game. Raonic can serve anyone off the court. You are seeing a pattern here I'm sure. Big player, big weapons, that moves well. This is a good recipe for giving Rafa problems. He unable to dominate and control the points from behind the baseline. However, Raonic has been inconsistent and again experience would not be on his side. Raonic and Nadal would meet in the Round of 16 which is good for Milos in some respects; try to catch Nadal early in the tournament before he is totally dialed in. Based on today's performance by Nadal it may already be too late to hope for an unprepared Rafa.
Of the four guys I am listing here Berdych has the most experience. However, this experience has not been all good in the Slams. Nonetheless, Berdych has the ability to smack winners from all areas of the court and has big shots. He also moves well. Berdych, like Soderling, could control the match with his forehand and being aggressive, although Berdych needs to exhibit the focus and intensity to overcome a player of Nadal's stature. From Berdych you do not always see the consistent urgency and discipline that Soderling displayed in beating Nadal. Berdych is on the other half of the draw and has a brutal list of potential opponents - Anderson, Del Potro, Federer, Djokovic. If Berdych was able to get to the Final it would be a miraculous effort.
Juan Martin Del Potro
Del Potro is in the same part of the draw as Berdych, so he has that same tough list of guys to battle through. With Del Po's questionable knee I thought of keeping him off this list of potential Nadal-beaters. However, Del Potro is the only man outside the Top 3 to win a slam in what seems to be a decade. He has the ability to beat anyone in the world but clay is not his best surface. Del Potro is the best of the four guys presented here. Big weapons and has the mettle to hit out under pressure. It is hard to foresee Del Potro making it through the draw with a hampered knee. If he did Nadal would punish what would probably be an ailing Del Potro.
That is my list of guys outside the Top 4 that could beat Nadal. I am not saying it will happen, but if one of this match-ups occurs watch closely. It will be dangerous for Nadal in his pursuit of French Open championship #7.