French Open 2020: 'Vulnerable' Rafael Nadal aims for No. 13 to equal Roger Federer's 20 Slams
Rafael Nadal seeks his 13th French Open title, to go level with Roger Federer on 20 Slams, but little preparation and different conditions don't go in his favour.
This French Open seems rather similar coming into it as far as Rafael Nadal is concerned. Last year, coming into the clay court major, Nadal lost in the semi-finals in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid before lifting the trophy in Rome. For most, this would be a fantastic run. But not for 'King of Clay'. He looked short of ideas and it appeared that this was the opportunity everyone had been waiting for. Two weeks later, Nadal was digging his teeth into the trophy, the way he does, having triumphed over one of the men who had beaten him on the way, having dropped just two sets in Paris, extending his record to 12.
That's 12 Grand Slam titles. At the same major. Most for a player to win at the same venue. Thereby moving him to 18 Grand Slam titles - two behind long-time rival Roger Federer. Taking his win-loss in Paris to 93-2!
A year on, Nadal's chase for Federer's record is one step closer but this is a whole different world. For one, as the cavalry moves to Roland Garros, this is the third Slam of the season and not the second with Wimbledon cancelled entirely. Where 5,20,000 attended the tournament last year, that number could well be around 15,000 this time. The stadium he has played on many times, Court Philippe-Chatrier, has a roof over it and floodlights to keep playing if need be.
— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) September 24, 2020
But what's similar is the question mark, which may feel foolish a fortnight on, over Nadal's readiness to win at Roland Garros. The preparation is far different than last year. Nadal has only played three matches since late February, going down in the quarters of Rome to Diego Schwartzman - someone he had beaten eight straight times in the past. The Spaniard acknowledged the 'special year' after the loss.
"It's a completely special and unpredictable year," said the 34-year-old. "I fought until the end. But losing that many serves, you can't expect to win a match. Something that I have to fix. I know how to do it."
— Gigi Salmon (@gigi_salmon) September 25, 2020
As Nadal would say, what happened in Rome, happened... here we are, we're in Paris. The left-hander and his whipped forehand, never say die attitude and enormous energy are being fine-tuned on the practice courts. As Dominic Thiem, who has lost twice to Nadal in the Roland Garros finals, attested, it is a whole different ball game to beating him in a best-of-five setter.
“You go into the match knowing that even your best tennis, even if you play it over three, four hours, might not be enough. I mean, if you do it, you maybe have a little chance, but you have to go to your limit on every single rally, every single point,” Thiem, who won the US Open less than two weeks ago, told The Associated Press.
“That makes it not easy to go into the match,” he added. “And that’s the mental part, I guess.”
Another factor that goes against Nadal are the conditions. These are not going to be hot and sunny courts in Paris that go in his favour but the light will fade quicker and evenings will be cooler.
“He remains my number one for the title, but I think the others’ chances are much better this year,” said Boris Becker.
“He usually plays Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid, and Rome and comes to Paris with a lot of match experience. This year is different. These are conditions that don't suit Nadal.”
Another strong contender for the French Open title is Novak Djokovic. Like Nadal, he also has the race to the top in sight with 17 Slams. He had won five of last seven majors and looked set for No. 18 in New York in the absence of his 'Big 3' peers. But accidentally hitting the line judge with a ball while walking to a changeover disrupted those plans.
Nadal and Djokovic see the race to finish with most Grand Slams differently.
“Of course I would love to finish my career with 25, but (that’s) something that probably will not happen. I’m going to keep fighting to produce chances, and then when I finish my career, let’s see, no?” he said. “I just want to keep enjoying tennis. And that’s it," said Nadal.
“Of course, in our sport, winning most grand slams and being No.1 for as long as possible are the two biggest professional goals. I think Roger and Rafa will agree with that. We all have our own journeys and our own trajectories and careers that are unique and specific,” feels Djokovic.
The title in Rome helped quieten the chatter about Djokovic's conduct. His 36th Masters 1000 title put him ahead of Nadal on the list of most Masters 1000 titles won. To his professional goals, Djokovic passed Pete Sampras this week for second place behind Federer in list of most weeks at No. 1 in the ATP rankings. Moreover, the Italian Open title highlights who easily and quickly the World No. 1 moved from hard courts to clay courts.
“It’s Nadal, even though he lost this week, a lot of people will agree that he’s the No.1 favourite. The record that he has there, the history of his results, you just can’t put anybody in front of him."
"But, definitely, Diego showed that Nadal is beatable on clay, the conditions that they played on, obviously heavy clay, not much bounce, humid, night session, we are going to have that as well in Paris,” said Djokovic after the Rome title.
“Night session, under the lights, as I said, a little bit less bounce. I don’t know… I’m pretty sure that he does not prefer that to a high bounce. I know he likes the high bounce, he likes the hot and warm and fast conditions where he can use his spin a lot,” added Djokovic.
— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) September 24, 2020
Thiem, with two consecutive second place finishes here, is another strong contender and would be boosted by the US Open title. He's 22-4 in the past four years at French Open with three of them coming to Nadal and one to Djokovic. Not bad at all.
But his attempt at becoming the first man in the Open Era to win his first two majors back-to-back is not going to be easy. The Austrian starts by facing Marin Cilic and could face Casper Ruud in the third round, Stan Wawrinka in the fourth, Schwartzman or Gael Monfils in the quarters, Nadal in the semi-finals and Djokovic in the final.
Alexander Zverev, who led the US Open final by two sets against Thiem, is another top player coming into the tournament.
"I’m 23 years old. I don’t think it’s my last chance. I do believe that I will be a Grand Slam champion at some point,” he said after the loss in New York.
He would have a first chance at that when he faces Dennis Novak in the first round. Twice a quarter-finalist at Roland Garros, the German has turned his Grand Slam performance around this year by making the semis in Australia and the last match of the tournament in New York. But this is expected to be different, not least because of the quick turnaround between two Slams and two surfaces.
It does help him and his chances with David Ferrer joining him on clay. "He’s a player with a lot of room for growth and I thought it seemed like an interesting experience and motivation,” the former World No. 3 told ATP's website.
One player who wouldn't get the most attention but is in exemplary touch since tennis returned is Denis Shapovalov. A quarters run at US Open and semis in Rome has taken him inside the top-10 in the world. Aided by big serve, smart approaches due to his doubles game and equally effective play at the net, the Canadian would be eager to go deep in Paris.
Round 1 matches to watch out for:
Oh, how things have changed since that semi-final in 2017...
— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) September 23, 2020
Stan Wawrinka vs Andy Murray
Dominic Thiem vs Marin Cilic
Gael Monfils vs Alexander Bublik
Denis Shapovalov vs Gilles Simon
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