At some level throughout the second week of this 12 months’s spectatorless United States Open, Rafael Nadal took to Instagram with a video.
While Nadal’s countryman Pablo Carreño Busta was struggling via a four-hour quarterfinal win over Denis Shapovalov, 21, of Canada, Nadal was on a purple clay court docket about 4,000 miles away.
Nadal’s video confirmed him, cap on backward, trademark sleeveless T-shirt, sneakers scuffing the baseline tape. He was training together with his good friend Grigor Dmitrov, who had simply flown to Nadal’s tennis academy in Manacor, Spain, after shedding a five-set match in the second spherical on the Open. If Nadal suffered from any rustiness for not having performed a tour match in greater than six months, he didn’t present it. If he felt a touch of remorse at not defending his Open title, he gave no indication.
What Nadal did in that quick clip was ship an emboldened message to all challengers that even when he didn’t really feel comfy coming to the United States to compete throughout a worldwide pandemic, he was greater than able to defend his 12 titles at the French Open.
“When you take positions, you accept and you have to go with everything,” Nadal stated from Rome final week, the place he returned to play on the Italian Open. “I had to decide one thing for me, my family, everything.”
He gained his first two matches there over Carreño Busta and Dusan Lajovic, dropping six video games, earlier than being upset in the quarterfinals by Diego Schwartzman of Argentina, the eventual runner-up to Novak Djokovic.
While some gamers have had entry to follow amenities, and others signed up for exhibition excursions in Europe and the United States, Nadal was hunkered down together with his household in an condominium in Majorca.
For greater than two months, he barely ventured outdoors, returning to follow on the academy solely in late May.
In this wildly truncated professional tennis season, with the French Open moved from the spring to late September and early October, Nadal is returning to Roland Garros, the place he has dominated.
In 15 years, he has misplaced simply two of 95 matches there, not together with a withdrawal in opposition to Marcel Granollers in 2016 due to a wrist harm.
His solely losses had been to Djokovic in the quarterfinals in 2015 and a shocker in opposition to Robin Soderling in the spherical of 16 in 2009. Only twice has he been taken to 5 units, a 9-7 in the fifth semifinal win over Djokovic in 2013 and a first-round victory over John Isner in 2011.
Should he win once more this 12 months, Nadal, 34, can have amassed 100 French Open match wins. With his 4 U.S. Open, one Australian and two Wimbledon titles, he may also tie Roger Federer’s report of 20 profession majors. Djokovic is shut behind with 17.
Federer, whose solely event look this 12 months was a semifinal loss to Djokovic on the Australian Open in February, is out for the rest of the season after knee surgical procedure.
“What makes Nadal great is simply that he puts more balls into play, especially on the return of serve,” stated Ivan Lendl, the three-time French Open champion. “His court positioning is better than anyone’s. He’s not only physically strong, but mentally too.”
For Nadal, the best French Open preparation is to play springtime clay-court tournaments in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid and Rome. This 12 months, all of these occasions, besides Rome, had been shelved due to the coronavirus. Nadal’s solely match preparation earlier than the French was the Italian Open.
“It’s obvious that to feel 100 percent you need matches,” Nadal stated. “I didn’t compete for the last six months, so for me, the first goal is to go on court and feel myself competitive. That’s a good test, without great expectations.”
Nadal’s first-ever French Open fundamental draw match in 2005, when he was 19, was a win over Lars Burgsmüller of Germany. He defeated Federer in the semifinals after which dispatched Mariano Puerta of Argentina to win the title.
Since then, Nadal has overwhelmed Federer 5 extra occasions on Roland Garros’s crushed purple clay, together with in straight units in final 12 months’s semifinals. He additionally has 5 wins (in opposition to the one loss) over Djokovic and 4 over Dominic Thiem, together with in the final two finals.
Kevin Anderson of South Africa, who has 5 profession losses to Nadal, together with in the ultimate of the 2017 U.S. Open, first met him in 1998 when the 2 12-year-olds had been paired collectively for a follow session in Stuttgart, Germany. Even then, Nadal’s status preceded him.
“Everyone looked up to him and wanted to be like him, including me,” Anderson stated. “His consistency is just unbelievable. His experience alone is worth 30 points a match. You’re not really playing him; you’re playing his reputation.”
As good as Nadal is on clay, he additionally has prowess on onerous courts. His 4 U.S. Open titles are one shy of the report shared by Federer, Pete Sampras and Jimmy Connors.
In profitable the 2010 U.S. Open, Nadal claimed three majors on three completely different surfaces that 12 months and have become the primary man to win Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the identical season since Rod Laver in 1969.
“Rafa is one of the best champions in our sport,” stated Fabio Fognini of Italy, who has misplaced to Nadal 12 occasions however overwhelmed him 4, together with in 5 units on the 2015 U.S. Open. “Say something that Rafa can’t do? I don’t know. He’s able to do everything. If he’s fit, it’s really, really hard to beat him at Roland Garros.”
If there’s one participant with the best likelihood to unseat Nadal in Paris this 12 months, it’s Thiem, who defeated Alexander Zverev of Germany in a fifth-set tiebreaker to assert his first main at the U.S. Open two weeks in the past. Thiem, 27, fought again from two units down and a break in the third to outlast Zverev, 23.
Thiem might have misplaced to Nadal in the final two French Open finals, however he beat Nadal in their most up-to-date assembly, the semifinals of the Australian Open. Thiem additionally beat him on clay in the Barcelona Open final 12 months earlier than falling 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 in the French Open ultimate.
“This win will help Dominic a lot to be more calm,” Nicolas Massu, Thiem’s coach, stated of the U.S. Open win. “I think for sure this year, or whenever, he will have a chance to win the French Open.”
For Nadal, it was a chance to skip the U.S. Open to organize on clay for the French, particularly on condition that he would have been the defending champion in New York.
“This is a weird year, something we’ve never seen before,” Lendl stated. “We know that Rafa has practiced, but will he have enough matches on clay? Will the other guys be able to adjust coming from the hard courts? It just seems that there are more questions than answers, and that makes it very difficult to predict anything.”