Federer, Nadal play mind games ahead of French Open

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have turned to playing mind games ahead of the latest instalment of their epic French Open rivalry.

Federer, desperate for a first Roland Garros title to add to his 12-strong Grand Slam collection, believes he is the more positive of the two men while Nadal, bidding for a fourth historic trophy, says the world number one’s decision to bring in Jose Higueras as coach could backfire.

Nadal, with a perfect record of 21 wins in 21 matches here, holds a mesmeric stranglehold over the world number one, winning eight of their nine claycourt meetings, including the last two finals here, and 10 of their 16 total career clashes.

That dominance has continued in 2008 with Nadal beating Federer in the finals of the Monte Carlo and Hamburg Masters.

But the Swiss superstar, who needs a Roland Garros title to become just the sixth man to clinch a career Grand Slam, insists his approach has not reaped its rewards.

“I know I can beat him. I’m the one playing aggressive. I’m the one trying hard.
I’m the one taking the risks in those matches, so I think I have positive chances of winning here,” said Federer who will face tricky American Sam Querrey in his opener.

“Two years ago I was more pessimistic, because I saw that Rafa was completely dominating the game on clay. But now I think I’m really close, and I believe I have the good tactics.

“I showed it in Monte Carlo and Hamburg. I just need to be broken one time less.”

Frustratingly for Federer, he surrendered healthy leads in Monte Carlo and Hamburg where he was defending champion.

In an effort to iron out the problems, he has turned to Higueras who coached Michael Chang and Jim Courier to the title here.

However, Nadal, is not convinced by the merits of that decision.

“It’s difficult to change the style of probably the best player in history in just three or four weeks,” said Nadal who will be bidding to follow Bjorn Borg into the record books by winning four French Opens in a row.

“It’s a long job. If I had a new coach it would be impossible for me to change my game in three weeks.”

The 21-year-old Nadal will begin his campaign against a qualifier but could face world number three Novak Djokovic, the Australian Open and Rome Masters winner, in the semifinals.

Compared to Federer, he has the toughest of the two draws with a potential quarterfinal match-up with Argentina’s David Nalbandian, against whom he has played two and lost two, also to consider.

But his record on clay is intimidating.

Since April 2005, the 21-year-old Spaniard has racked up 108 wins in 110 matches on the surface.

Djokovic, who starts his campaign against Germany’s Denis Gremelmayr, is the man breathing down both Federer and Nadal’s necks.

Beaten by Nadal in the semi-finals here in 2007 and quarterfinals in 2006, the Serbian third seed, who celebrated his 21st birthday on Thursday, is the most successful player on tour this year.

He won his first Grand Slam title in Melbourne dropping just one set in seven rounds and also clinched the Indian Wells Masters before his win on clay in Rome.

Djokovic also pushed Nadal all the way in a three-set semifinal in Hamburg.

“That semifinal was one of the best matches I have played, probably the best match I have ever played on clay. I am really pleased with my form ahead of the French Open, my fitness is good, I feel fresh and that bodes well for Roland Garros.”

Djokovic is also closing in on Nadal’s world number two position and the Spaniard believes it’s just a matter of time before the Serbian is on top of the world.

“He has improved incredibly and is getting better,” said Nadal.

“He’s going to be world number one within a few years.”

Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are head and shoulders above the rest of the men’s field; world number four Nikolay Davydenko is almost 2 000 points adrift of the Serbian in the world rankings.

As a result, the top trio are certain to dominate court time and column inches, but there won’t be a dry eye in the house when former triple champion Gustavo Kuerten plays and, probably, loses in the first round.

The Brazilian, champion in 1997, 2000 and 2001, has featured in just nine tournaments in the last three years after failing to recover from a crippling hip injury.

This year’s emotional farewell will be the 31-year-old’s last appearance of his 13-year career.

The French Open gets under way on Sunday. - Sapa-AFP