PARIS (AP) — For once, not everything seems so obvious heading into the French Open.
Yes, Rafael Nadal will still be favored by most to win the clay-court Grand Slam tournament yet again. He is, after all, 59-1 for his career at Roland Garros, winner of a record eight championships, including the last four.
Still, if the 2014 tennis season to date is any indication, there could be some surprises in store when play begins in Paris on Sunday. So far, there already was one new major champion, Stanislas Wawrinka at the Australian Open. And there has been a rather egalitarian feel to the spring clay circuit, with nine winners at nine tournaments.
The three top men in the ATP rankings — No. 1 Nadal, No. 2 Novak Djokovic and No. 3 Wawrinka — each claimed a Masters title on the slow red surface, including Djokovic's victory over Nadal in the Rome final last weekend. That gave Nadal three clay losses in a season for the first time since 2004, when he was all of 17 and yet to make his French Open debut.
"It's more normal this year than the last 10 years have been because the last years have been strange and we've gotten used to having these great finals between the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the world and one player dominating the whole year — and we started to think that's normal. Really, that's the exception," said Mats Wilander, who won the French Open three times in the 1980s.
"Heading into the French Open, it's more exciting. The regular tour probably benefits from having one superstar that's cleaning up everything, or maybe a rivalry," Wilander added. "But the French Open and the other Slams benefit from having no clear-cut favorite. That's the way it used to be, and I think it's better. I don't think we want to go there and ask ourselves: Is Nadal going to win a ninth time? That just doesn't excite me at all. It's much more exciting to think that Djokovic is the favorite or that (Roger) Federer has a chance."
Not surprisingly, Nadal does not exactly agree.
He'll be seeded No. 1 for only the third time at Roland Garros — one of those years, 2009, was when his lone loss came, against Robin Soderling in the fourth round — but he could relinquish the top ranking to Djokovic over the course of the 15-day tournament.
Asked about the idea of this year's French Open being a little less predictable, Nadal replied: "I don't care. I don't know. I think about myself. What I have to do."