Rafael Nadal has won a record 12 French Open titles with the same ritual precision that compels him to line up his water bottles just so, or avoid treading on the painted lines on a court. For that reason, the 2020 French Open — so fraught with disruptions, so loaded with unknowns in a year full of both — looms as perhaps his most challenging yet.
The defending champion is well aware of the task he faces as he seeks to equal Roger Federer’s record of 20 Grand Slam singles titles at a tournament where the consensus “King of Clay” customarily feels most at home.
“Conditions here probably are the most difficult for me ever in Roland Garros for so many different facts,” Nadal, seeded No. 2 behind Novak Djokovic, said in his pre-tournament meeting with reporters Friday. “The balls are completely different, super slow and heavy. It’s very cold. Slow conditions. Of course, the preparation has been less than usual [because of the coronavirus pandemic].
“I’m just staying positive knowing that the conditions are not perfect for me — maybe not perfect for others, either — and [accepting] that I am going to need my best version to have a chance.”
One challenge Nadal might face: his lack of match play entering the tournament. He has played just three matches on clay since the 2019 French Open.
“He may feel less comfortable at the start of the tournament, but he’ll have time to work his way into the event before he hits the higher-seeded players,” Jim Courier, a two-time French Open champion who is now a Tennis Channel analyst, told ESPN. “It should allow him to find his groove.”
The pandemic forced the cancellation of the entire spring Euroclay season, one Nadal annually dominates. But the lack of seasoning is just the front end of a one-two punch Nadal absorbed because of the health crisis. The second setback was the four-month postponement of Roland Garros, which guaranteed it would be played under the current, chilly autumn conditions.
Djokovic provided the Nadal camp with some bulletin-board material when he told reporters in Rome a week ago: “[Nadal] prefers high bounces, that it is hot, that the ball goes fast. It’s going to be interesting. I think even though he’s the No.1 favorite, there are players that can win against him there.”
Nadal’s response: “Yeah, 100 percent true. I have always been beatable on clay. He beat me a lot of times. But, at the same time, it is true that I had a lot of success on this surface.”
Still, the conditions are a source of concern in Nadal’s camp.
Courier remembers the 2018 quarterfinal in which Diego Schwartzman — who recorded his first win against Nadal in 10 tries just last week in Rome — was pushing Nadal around on a cold, wet court until the match was called due to darkness with Schwartzman up by a set. Under bright, dry conditions the following day, “Rafa just crushed him,” Courier said.
“Of course, the preparations have been less than usual. 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.”
This year’s switch to Wilson balls (a deal struck before the pandemic hit) is also proving problematic. The Wilson ball, according to Nadal and defending runner-up Dominic Thiem, among others, absorbs too much moisture and attracts the coarse, granular top dressing on the court. The ball fluffs up and becomes heavy. Nadal said he has had to cut practices short for fear of hurting his shoulder or elbow. Under wet and damp conditions, Nadal’s powerful topspin shots will not jump as high or penetrate through the court, factors that usually enable him to dictate a match.
Nadal looked ready to pick up where the season left off last week, easily winning two matches in straight sets before losing to Schwartzman. The winner called the match his “best ever,” but Nadal’s game was off the rails. He made 30 unforced errors, allowed five service breaks and made just 27 of 63 first serves, raising a sudden flurry of speculation around his chances in Paris.
Nadal’s own reaction: “We can make excuses, but I didn’t play well enough.”
Nadal might get some respite if the conditions become overly unfavorable. This year, Court Philippe Chatrier has an operational roof and lights. While the tournament has no plans for official night sessions until 2021, a start late in the day on Chatrier could end well after dark.
“It will be interesting to see how the courts play with the roof closed,” ESPN television analyst Brad Gilbert said. “Will it make the court play faster? Nadal probably would like that a lot better than a wet outdoor court.”
There is also that matter of world No. 1 Djokovic. He has taken the lead in their career series (29-26) and won half of their past 10 matches on clay. Djokovic was on fire before the pandemic hit, with his only loss on his 32-match record of 2020 being the infamous default he was issued at the US Open. He has regained his momentum, putting away Schwartzman in straight sets in Rome to eclipse Nadal as the all-time leader in Masters 1000 titles (Djokovic now has 36). He also passed Pete Sampras on the all-time list of weeks spent at No. 1 (this has been Djokovic’s 287th) to close in further on Federer (310). Djokovic appears sure to achieve that goal.
Nadal does have a 6-1 edge in their French Open meetings, and with 19 Grand Slam titles, he is still two ahead of the Serbian star in the great race to become the all-time men’s Grand Slam singles champ. Not that Nadal is counting, at least not out loud.
“I’m not obsessed with those 20 major titles,” he said in Rome, reciting a familiar mantra. “I can’t always think about Roger or Novak and our race for most majors. I made my entire career in my way and will keep doing that.”
Thiem, Nadal’s projected semifinal opponent, is a potential roadblock standing in the way of a Nadal-Djokovic showdown. At 27, the Austrian power baseliner is considerably younger (at 34, Nadal just is a year older than Djokovic). In the past four years, Thiem has played two semifinals and two finals (2018/19) at Roland Garros, and he is coming off his first Grand Slam win at the US Open.
Thiem may be young and strong, with an explosive serve and groundstrokes, but he is in awe of Nadal in a way that Djokovic is not.
“I think he’s the big favorite,” Thiem said on Friday. “He’s by far the best clay-court player — ever.”
Nadal is also healthy. He is often banged up at this time of the year after carrying a heavy load of matches in the spring. “Rafa craves competitive feedback, so the lack of match play is a minus,” Courier said. “But on the positive side, his health should be good. He’s had the time off to heal the little problems most players carry with them during the grueling season.”
The lockdown has also shown Nadal in a different light from most of his rivals. Djokovic defied the pandemic and tried to host a summer tour in the Balkans with disastrous results. At the same time, Nadal continued to advocate caution and urged others to refrain from rushing to reboot sports. He called for a sense of perspective when it came to the importance — or lack thereof — of pro athletics during the devastating pandemic.
In the spring, Nadal first declared he had very little interest in playing tennis with no spectators present, under strict health protocols. Some believed his attitude was one only a rich player could afford; but as the pandemic raged in his home country of Spain, Nadal made it clear tennis was not on his mind. Deeply affected by the pandemic’s high toll across the world, Nadal donated large sums of money and helped raise even more on behalf of his afflicted compatriots. He also took flak for publicly criticizing Spanish officials’ response to the crisis.
Nadal’s insistence that the pandemic, not sports, remains in the forefront of our minds persists. He set aside his discontents on Friday while reflecting on the conditions under which this French Open will take place.
“Of course, it is not the ideal situation. Nobody likes to play with these conditions,” he said. “[But first] we need to fix the most important thing, and that is the worldwide health that today is still [facing] big problems. At least one thing we can say is, thanks that we can play tennis again.”
But don’t doubt that Nadal is in Paris to play, and win.
“The preparations have been less than usual,” he said. “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 [myself] a chance. That’s the main goal for me.”
That attitude has earned him a dozen French Open titles. Another might be coming soon.