Nadal went without competitive matches for more than half the year only to emerge in Paris ahead of this week’s French Open, which begins Sunday and runs through Oct. 11, still the heavy favorite to win but with a whole crop of newness to confront along the way.
He addressed most of it at a news conference Friday.
There is a new brand of balls being used at the tournament (heavy, slow, “not a good ball to play on clay, honestly,” Nadal said); new weather conditions for the event, which is usually held in tepid May (“the weather is so, so cold”); and only 1,000 spectators allowed in each day, pared down from the French Tennis Federation’s initial hope of tens of thousands (“not the ideal situation”).
Most unfamiliar of all, that newness and his lack of match play conspired to create the slightest, most gentle whisper of vulnerability about the 12-time French Open champion.
He is still the man to beat as he plays for his 20th Grand Slam singles title, the trophy that would tie Federer's record.
But — perhaps more than he has been in 15 years — is he beatable?
“Yeah, 100 percent true,” Nadal said. “I always have been beatable on clay . . . but at the same time, it’s true that I had a lot of success in this surface. Situation is special. Conditions here probably are the most difficult conditions for me ever in Roland Garros for so many different facts. . . . But you know what? I am here to fight and to play with the highest intensity possible, to practice with the right attitude, to give me a chance.”
At Roland Garros, Nadal always has a bit more than just a chance. The 34-year-old owns a 93-2 record at the French Open and hasn't lost a match there since Novak Djokovic toppled him in the quarterfinals in 2015. He rides a 21-match winning streak into his first-round bout Monday against the 83rd-ranked Egor Gerasimov from Belarus.
To get to the final, which Nadal has never lost, he would need to go through recently crowned U.S. Open champion Dominic Thiem in a semifinal first. The pair have met in the past two French Open finals, though Thiem’s path this year is full of roadblocks.
The 27-year-old will face Marin Cilic, the 2014 U.S. Open champion, in the first round. He also will have to shudder away any lingering distractions after winning his first Grand Slam trophy in New York and try to make the brutal adjustment from hard court to clay, a slower surface that requires a nearly entirely different game plan, with just six days of practice under his belt.
“I'll see how I handle all the emotions, also all the physical challenges which happen in New York. In the past I was not that great playing the tournaments after big titles like Indian Wells last year or Vienna. I've always played not that great the following week,” Thiem said. “I'll try to do it different here in Paris."
Nadal, Thiem and top-ranked Djokovic, returning to the Grand Slam stage after his dramatic exit by default in New York, make up the favorites to win the year’s final major tournament, though only the Spaniard is chasing history on the men’s side. Federer won’t have the chance to extend his slim lead after he shut down his season following knee surgery in spring.
In the women’s tournament, Serena Williams — who turned 39 Saturday — is playing for another shot to tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
Like Thiem, her path is rugged. The three-time French Open champion will face Kristie Ahn in the first round in a repeat of their opening-round match at the U.S. Open and could face another rematch, against U.S. Open finalist Victoria Azarenka, in the fourth round. Simona Halep, the No. 2 player in the world and a former French Open champion, is also in Williams’s half of the draw.
With two-time U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka having withdrawn from the French Open to nurse a hamstring injury, Halep and Williams are strong contenders for the title even though the American arrived in Paris without having played a tuneup tournament.
Williams pulled out of the Italian Open after tweaking her Achilles' tendon in New York.
“After New York I flew to France and I’ve just been training at [coach Patrick Mouratoglou’s] academy, mostly rehabbing, trying to be ready,” Williams said Saturday. “So that was basically what it was, rehab and training. I wouldn’t be playing if I didn’t think I could perform. I’m not at 100 percent physically. But I don’t know any athlete that ever plays physically when they’re feeling perfect."