Nadal comes into Roland Garros, where he has been champion eight times, with his game seemingly at crisis point. His defeat to world number two Djokovic in the Rome Masters final marked the first time since 2004 that he had lost three claycourt matches in the same year.
Even the successful defence of his Madrid Masters title was achieved only after Kei Nishikori was forced to retire from their final with a back injury. Before that, Nadal was knocked out in the quarterfinals in Barcelona and Monte Carlo. But Federer threw his weight behind Nadal on Sunday, just moments after equalling the Spaniard’s record of 59 Roland Garros wins courtesy of a 6-2, 6-4, 6-2 breeze past Slovakia’s Lukas Lacko.
“It doesn’t go week by week. I don’t know who’s talking all the time, but Rafa is the favourite, and then Novak, and then the rest, you know. It’s very clear,” insisted Federer. ”I think he’s back where he wants to be. He’s played the matches he needs to play. He’s even won at home in Madrid. So I think he probably is where he wants to be, in my opinion.”
Federer also hinted at exasperation over Djokovic’s roller-coaster fitness issues. The Serb, who needs a French Open title to join Federer and Nadal in completing a career Grand Slam, injured his right wrist in Monte Carlo, then skipped Madrid before storming to victory in Rome. ”Three weeks ago he couldn’t play tennis anymore. When he was injured, oh, my God, you know. Things are looking so terrible. Now everything is great,” said the Swiss.
Federer kicked off his 16th consecutive French Open with an 84-minute demolition of the hapless Lacko. It was Federer’s first victory since becoming a father of twins for the second time. The 32-year-old Swiss, who won his only Paris title in 2009, was watched by wife Mirka and older twins Myla and Charlene but not three-week old Lenny and Leo.
Federer was never troubled by Lacko, the world number 88 who has not won a claycourt match for three years. Breaks in the fifth and seventh games of the opening set followed by another in the third game of the second put the 17-time major winner in total control. Federer broke again in the first and fifth games of the third set against the hapless Lacko to seal victory in just 84 minutes, a performance highlighted by 40 winners.
Federer goes on to face either Portugal‘s Gastao Elias or Diego Sebastian Schwartzman of Argentina for a place in the last 32. Federer added that he now has no problems with playing on the first Sunday although he remains unconvinced over whether or not it is required in Paris.
“I don’t necessarily agree that the French Open has a Sunday start and 15 days of Grand Slam over Wimbledon having 13,” said Federer. ”I remember the first year when they introduced it and I refused to play on the Sunday. They made me play on it anyway. But now everything is more laid back and I was actually very pleased to see a full crowd almost for a first round.
Watch video: Rafael Nadal back at French Open