Does Rafael Nadal consider himself the favourite at this year’s Roland Garros? As a 12-time tournament champion, he has dominated the event like no other player in all Grand Slam history. On the other side of the ledger, he has played just one tournament since February and suffered a surprise quarter-final loss to Diego Schwartzman last week in Rome.
His great rival, Novak Djokovic, comes in with a 31-1 record on the season, and the confidence of having won a record-breaking 36th ATP Masters 1000 title in Rome. To win the trophy, Nadal may need to beat US Open champion Dominic Thiem in the semi-finals and Djokovic in the final. And the World No. 2 feels that conditions are not in his favour.
So maybe, just maybe, there is hope for others in the field.
“I always have been beatable on clay. [Novak] beat me a lot of times,” said Nadal. “But at the same time [it] is true that I had a lot of success on this surface. [The] situation is special. Conditions here probably are the most difficult conditions for me ever in Roland Garros for so many different [reasons]. The ball completely different. The ball is super slow, heavy. It’s very cold. Slow conditions.
“Of course, the preparation have been less than usual. But you know what, I am here to fight and to play with the highest intensity possible, to practise with the right attitude, to give [myself] a chance. That’s the main goal for me. Be competitive on Monday, and let’s try. Just day-by-day. I know this place very well. It is about being patient, being positive, just trying to find the positive vibes every single day.”
Despite the challenging conditions for the Spaniard at this year’s event, Nadal is excited to be back at the most successful tournament of his career. The Spaniard can create history in Paris this year. If Nadal lifts the trophy by winning seven matches in Paris, he will equal Roger Federer’s record of 20 Grand Slam crowns and hit 100 victories at the clay-court Grand Slam championship. Nadal currently holds a tournament record 93 wins from 95 matches.
“We are just about to start a very important event, the most important event in my tennis career historically,” said Nadal. “I am just happy to be back here in this place… The situation is a little bit more difficult than usual without a doubt. But that’s it. I going to keep trying my best. I know [it is] going to be a big challenge to play well here. But I did it in the past… I know very well I have to keep giving [myself] chances to find the best level possible.”
Nadal is aware that conditions in Paris are vastly different from previous years. The typical spring weather has been replaced by damp, cold conditions at Stade Roland Garros. But the Spaniard is not a complete stranger to challenging weather in Paris.
At last year’s event, the 19-time Grand Slam champion overcame heavy winds to defeat Roger Federer in straight sets in the semi-finals. With weather conditions out of his control, Nadal is choosing to focus on what he can influence ahead of his first-round match against Egor Gerasimov: his attitude and concentration.
“The conditions on the court are completely different than the previous years,” said Nadal. “I [am] just going to try to keep working hard. I think I had a good couple of practices… I am not having bad feelings. I am just trying to focus on what I have to do to be ready. That’s my goal.”
By accepting that this Roland Garros will be like no other he has played before, Nadal has been able to relax and focus his mind on one simple goal: to find his best level. It is a goal he has managed to achieve on 12 previous visits to the tournament. Only time will tell if his bid for a 13th Coupe des Mousquetaires will be successful.
“What you need is the right energy to accept every single thing. That’s what I am doing,” said Nadal. “Just stay positive knowing that the conditions are not perfect for me, maybe not perfect for others either, and accept that I [am] going to need my best version to have chances.
“I am just relaxed knowing that it’s a very special year. I am here just to give myself a chance to enjoy another Roland Garros and, of course, to try my best to be competitive and fight for the final goal.”