French Open - Nadal: Djokovic is Paris favourite
World number one Rafa Nadal acclaimed Novak Djokovic as the man to beat at the French Open after losing to the Serbian in straight sets on clay for the second time in a week at the Rome Masters.
The Spaniard, who has won the title at Roland Garros five times in the past six years, fell 6-4 6-4 in Italy, seven days after losing his undefeated record against Djokovic on clay in Madrid.
"He's playing the best right now," Nadal said. "In the last few months he's been at a different level. He's doing amazing things. He's playing with a lot of confidence. I'm the second in the race. My goal is to be there the next time."
But Nadal, who has won nine Grand Slam titles compared to Djokovic's two wins at the Australian Open, hinted that a showpiece occasion would bring a different challenge.
"The big champions are not just those that are able to win every week but those that are able to wait until the right moment," he said. "I've beaten him in the past but now he's beating me. There are always ups and downs in a career."
After almost pulling out of the tournament earlier in the week because of a virus, the Mallorcan said his priority was to recover for the Paris tournament starting on Saturday.
"The most important thing is to arrive in the right conditions for the next tournament," he said. "There are many things to do to improve."
The Serb won his seventh consecutive title by flattening the five-times champion on the bigger points in another brutal duel.
"I was amazed by the way I played," Djokovic, who is just five matches short of equalling John McEnroe's 42-0 start record, said.
"I was on the verge of losing the semi-final match. This was maybe my best performance on clay courts to beat the best man in the world in straight sets.
"I served really well getting free points. I played the perfect match against Rafa in Madrid and here.
"Let's get one thing straight -- he's still the king of clay.
"He's the best person ever on these courts. Winning twice in the last week is a great achievement and gives me confidence coming up to France but he has been so dominant over the years."