With the French Open starting today, six men have to be rated as favorites. One, however, is the prohibitive favorite. That would be three-time defending champion Rafael Nadal. The No. 2-ranked Spaniard is seeking to become only the second man in history to win the French Open four times in a row. Bjorn Borg is the other. Standing in his way is world No. 1 Roger Federer, the losing finalist the past two years at Roland Garros. Also in the mix are hot shots Novak Djokovic, Nikolay Davydenko, David Ferrer and David Nalbandian. For Federer, the clay court major remains the only Grand Slam title missing on his resume. Nadal comes into the year’s second slam in superlative form. He defeated Federer in the final at Monte Carlo, won Barcelona, and last week topped the Swiss Maestro again at Hamburg. The only hiccup in the Spaniard’s spring on the European clay came in the first round of the Italian Open. There he lost to Juan Carlos Ferrero while hampered by a painful foot blister. Nadal is an ATP-best 37-7 this year, with a 15-1 mark on clay. The Spaniard has won 108 of his last 110 matches on the slow stuff. Federer’s quest to win in Paris has led to enlisting the services of Jose Higueras in mid-April. Higueras, a formidable clay-court player in the 1970s and ’80s, coached Michael Chang to the 1989 French Open title, then guided Jim Courier to the 1991 and 1992 crowns. The clay-court guru from Spain definitely knows a thing or two and Federer sees a benefit in that. “A guy seeing it from a different angle. Somebody you can discuss and talk about tactics and certain things,” said Federer. “If he sees something in my technique, that is something you can work on in the practice sessions.” By his standards, Federer has had a so so year, 27-7 with one title. The previous three years Federer has come into Paris with a 103-9 record with 13 titles. Despite an 8-1 record against Federer on clay, Nadal speaks glowingly about the Swiss star’s chances. On Friday he called Federer “one of the best clay-court players.” Nadal, however, views any Higueras impact with skepticism. “If I have a new coach, it’s impossible to change my game in three weeks,” he said. Arguably the most improved of the contenders is the No. 3-ranked Djokovic. The Serb bagged his first major at the Australian Open in January, won Indian Wells in March, and took the Italian Open title earlier this month. “I’m coming to this year’s French Open as a more mature player,” Djokovic said. “And considering that fact, I believe much more in myself and that I can win against Rafa on clay, or Roger on any surface.” The Serb, for now, is winless against the pair on clay – 0-4 against Nadal and 0-2 versus Federer. My outside pick for the title is Nalbandian, seeded No. 6. The Argentine, supremely gifted but often an enigma, is capable of beating anybody on any surface. Nalbandian is a Federer nemesis and has a 2-0 record against Nadal.