When it comes to the red stuff ... Spain reign supreme, writes Raz Mirza
By Razwan Mirza - Tweet me: @RazMirza. Last Updated: 19/05/14 10:00am
Rafael Nadal will lead the long-list of Spanish players in Paris
Just like the national football team, Spain have become a force to be reckoned with on the tennis circuit, with eight-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal leading the way.
The Spanish conveyor belt currently boasts no fewer than 14 players in the men's top 100 alone; France are next best with 11.
All bar a few are claycourt specialists and as we head to Roland Garros it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Spaniards converge in Paris and dominate proceedings.
Nadal remains top of the rankings with three titles and an appearance in the Australian Open final so far this season.
However, all has not appeared well with the 13-time Grand Slam champion recently, including consecutive quarter-final defeats in the first two tournaments of the European claycourt swing.
An eight-time champion at Monte Carlo and Barcelona, the Mallorcan fell to fellow Spaniards David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro, respectively.
The 27-year-old won his first European clay title of the season and 27th Masters tournament victory of his career at the Madrid Open at the weekend and he will be seeking to add to his 44 total claycourt titles in the French capital later this month.
Crest of a wave
Other than Nadal, who is odds-on favourite to land his ninth French Open crown with SkyBet at 10/11, the rest of the 'big four' including Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray will be nervously looking over their shoulders with the rest of the Spanish Armada riding on the crest of a wave.
Ferrer is ranked fifth while Tommy Robredo is 18th in the world. Almagro comes in at No 23 with Fernando Verdasco currently ranked 25.
Feliciano Lopez is next at 27th with the new kid on the block Roberto Bautista Agut adding his name to the lengthening list of Spaniards at No 28.
Marcel Granollers (31), Guillermo Garcia-Lopez (38), Albert Montanes (58), Pablo Andujar (64), youngster Pablo Carreno Busta (68), Daniel Gimeno-Traver (93) and Pere Riba (98) make up the rest of the 14 names.
So it's little wonder that since 2008, Spain have won the Davis Cup three times (2008, 2009, 2011) as well as finishing as runners-up in 2012.
This year Carlos Moya's side were ousted by Germany in the first round 4-1, but only after he was deprived of his best players.
Bautista Agut, who made his debut in that tie in Frankfurt, added his name to the world top 30 this week after continuing his breakthrough season with a run to the semi-finals of the Madrid Open at the weekend.
The 26-year-old overcame compatriots Robredo and Verdasco en route to his last four clash with world No 1 Nadal, who finally put an end to his run with a 6-4 6-3 win.
Bautista Agut's progress marks yet another success story for the Spanish tennis federation.
Bautista Agut had already stated his intentions for the season ahead when he won a five-set thriller to see off fifth seed Juan Martin Del Potro in the first round of the Australian Open in January.
And he followed it up with a three-set win over Tomas Berdych in Indian Wells in March before an impressive 6-4 6-1 success against Wimbledon semi-finalist Jerzy Janowicz at the Miami Masters two weeks later.
The Spaniard's performances in Madrid now mean he is set to be seeded at Roland Garros - making him a real dark horse.
"Being a seeded player in Roland Garros and being able to make it to the semi-finals in a tournament like this, it gives me a lot of confidence to keep on playing at this level."
Roberto Bautista Agut
"Being a seeded player in Roland Garros and being able to make it to the semi-finals in a tournament like this, it gives me a lot of confidence to keep on playing at this level," Bautista Agut said.
"Physically I feel really good. I think I'm in a really good moment that I've never been in before. I finish the matches, and the next day I wake up and I feel perfectly in order to play another match.
"Afterward my level I think is going to keep on going the same during the rest of the year. I'm happy with what I've been doing recently, so I hope that the rest will keep on going in the same line."
Perhaps the greatest testament to Bautista Agut's consistent improvement this year came from his conqueror.
Nadal, whose recent resurgence put him firmly back on track for Roland Garros after disappointing displays at the start of his claycourt campaign, said: "He has already had some great victories this year. He's a really dangerous player and it was an important victory for me."
In a draw likely once again to be stuffed with Bautista Agut's compatriots, it wouldn't be a surprise to see a few all-Spanish clashes early on in the tournament.
The claycourts are likely to play in their favour though, so depending on how the draw pans out expect to see three or four Iberian faces in the last eight of the French Open this year.