Questions have been raised over the fitness and form of Rafael Nadal and his ability to defend his French Open crown in June but former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt has absolutely no doubt in his mind.
With nine titles and just a solitary loss in 10 years at Roland Garros since 2005, the 28-year-old Spaniard remains practically unbeatable on the red clay in Paris.
Speaking to The Straits Times yesterday, Hewitt declared: "Nadal is the favourite.
"I don't care how much he's struggling going into it; with the record he has, he's been nearly impossible to beat at that place.
"Every Grand Slam is tough to win but he's won the French with ease a lot of times as well."
Yet, little has been straightforward for Nadal since he claimed his ninth French Open last June.
A right wrist injury and appendicitis - which required surgery - resulted in a start-stop campaign.
Issues with his health were raised again following a tame quarter-final loss to Tomas Berdych at this year's Australian Open.
Another subdued exit in the French capital is highly unlikely though.
Hewitt, who helped launch Australian multivitamin brand Swisse in Singapore at an event at the Australian High Commissioner's residence, said: "The biggest difference is guys can beat him in Madrid or Rome (claycourt events leading up to the French Open), occasionally in best-of-three sets if they get lucky on a day, but to beat him over five sets has been near impossible."
The 34-year-old added that top-ranked Novak Djokovic, against whom Nadal has a 4-3 record in Grand Slam finals with last year's French Open clash the most recent, is the only realistic challenger but even the Serb can be vulnerable on clay.
Hewitt won the US Open in 2001 and Wimbledon in 2002 and and remains the youngest man to become world No. 1 when the Australian reached the pinnacle in 2001 at the age of 20.
Now ranked 101st and in the twilight of his career, he is full of praise for long-time rival Roger Federer, who is still defying Father Time in his quest for a record 18th Grand Slam at age 33.
Said Hewitt: "He's so good at playing efficient tennis and not wearing himself out; that's been one of his assets for many years...
"But to beat the top guys, he has to play on the limit a bit more nowadays. He could have beaten them from the back of the court years ago whereas now he has to change it up a bit and really take it to those guys in a different way."
To Hewitt, the grass courts at Wimbledon represent Federer's best chance for another piece of history.
"It's his biggest chance because I don't think there are that many guys who can beat Roger there when he's playing well."
The Swiss' record at the All England Club, where he has won seven times and was the 2014 losing finalist, also bodes well.
"He came awfully close to winning last year (losing in five sets to Djokovic)... so that's the one I think he'll be targeting to play his best tennis there."
With the domination of tennis' Big Four was disrupted last year following victories by Stanislas Wawrinka (Australian Open) and Marin Cilic (US Open), there are signs that a new generation of players, led by world No. 5 Kei Nishikori, 25, sixth-ranked Milos Raonic, 24, and 11th-ranked Grigor Dimitrov, 23, could be poised to challenge for the major titles.
But Hewitt is more cautious in his assessment. He said: "Nowadays, you have to beat two, possibly three of those top-four players to win a Slam and that's what those guys can't do yet.
"They might beat one of them but not two or three of them in a row to win it. Very rarely are Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and (Andy) Murray going to lose before the quarter-finals so they're going to have to beat those guys to win it."
And it starts with the herculean task this summer of dethroning the king of clay at his natural habitat in Roland Garros.
This article was first published on March 19, 2015.
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