Rafael Nadal is usually invigorated by his arrival in Paris. On a fine day in the spring, the glowing clay of Roland Garros makes him as happy as a cat reclining in its favourite sunspot. But not this year. The murky skies, the constant downpours and – above all – the heavy new Wilson balls have combined to sap his spirit.
“Conditions here probably are the most difficult for me ever in Roland Garros,” Nadal told reporters on Friday, on his pre-tournament videoconference call. His doleful mood may explain why bookmakers are reporting a surge of investment behind Novak Djokovic, the top seed and world No 1.
Nadal has won the last three French Opens, and 12 in all – a streak of domination that must stand alongside any sporting achievement you could name. His left-handed forehand is one of the greatest – and most inimitable – shots in tennis history. Crucially, it benefits from the extra split-second that comes with a clay-court bounce.
But conditions can slow too much, even for Nadal. If the courts take too much pace off – as they have this weekend in nine-degree temperatures – then nobody’s shots are flying for winners. Now it becomes a contest of who can keep the ball in court for longest. And on this front, Djokovic – who announced at the weekend that Nadal is “beatable on clay” – is without peer.
The Rome Masters – which finished on Monday in yet another coronation ceremony for Djokovic – was a case in point. Nadal charged out of the gate like an angry bull, savaging US Open semi-finalist Pablo Carreno Busta and the talented Serbian Dusan Lajovic in his first two matches. But then he came up against Argentina’s metronomic Diego Schwartzman – another man who can go weeks without missing. The result wasn’t pretty: a 6-2, 7-5 defeat.
So it is that Nadal arrived in Paris on the back of just two wins in the last six months. And when he sought comfort in the familiarity of Roland Garros, he found it greatly changed. Court Philippe Chatrier has been rebuilt since the 2019 event at a cost of E160m – including a E55m retractable roof. The fans were absent and the sun was setting before 8pm.
His reward, should he rise above all these obstacles, would be as special as they come: a 20th major title, to equal Roger Federer’s record tally. Lifting himself briefly from his slough of despond, Nadal set out the stages of the journey on Friday. “Be competitive on Monday [when he is due to open against Egor Gerasimov of Belarus], and let's try. Is about be patient, be positive, just trying to find the positive vibes every single day.”
His physical health, he said abruptly, was “fine”. At the same time, though, he complained that it would not be possible to practise for long periods for fear of wearing out his wrist, elbow and shoulder. The combination of cold conditions and heavy balls would simply be too exhausting.
“I practised with the balls in Mallorca before the comeback,” Nadal said. “I think not a good ball to play on clay, honestly. Even with these conditions makes the things tougher, no? I really believe that the organisation need to take a look on that for the next couple of years, for the health of the players, too, because the ball super heavy becomes dangerous for the elbow and for the shoulders.”
You can hear the mood right there. Nadal doesn’t want to sound like a whinger, but he is seriously grumpy about the way the next fortnight is stacking up. Still, it wouldn’t take much to lift his spirits.
The forecast shows the temperatures doubling again over the coming week, to a relatively healthy 18 degrees. Also, his quarter of the draw could be worse. Yes, Alexander Zverev is there in the last eight, followed by a possible showdown with Dominic Thiem in the last four. But those two men – finalists in New York only a fortnight ago – have plenty of miles on the clock already. Who would be shocked if they both took an early fall in Paris?
Is this all about the weather? Admittedly, the calendar shift is not helpful to Nadal’s game. But then, it is hardly unusual for Paris to be chilly in May. One wonders if there might not be more to this little show of temper than simple climatic conditions. Especially when you place it alongside Djokovic’s unscheduled eruption at the US Open.
Could tennis’s most famous names be feeling the pressure as they come into the final furlong of this extraordinary three-horse race. Who will come away with the bragging rights as the most successful male player of all time?
The endgame is always the most fraught part of any sporting event, which is what this contest within a contest has become. Nadal wants Oct 11 to deliver his annual coronation – and yet he doesn’t recognise his kingdom in the fall. His usual sense of playing at home – even in a foreign country – is missing.
Still, he is not going to abdicate his status as the King of Clay just yet. “I am here to fight and to play with the highest intensity possible,” he said. “To practise with the right attitude. To give me a chance.”