In Paris, it’s rafa’s show

Nadal en­ters French Open in fine form and seek­ing an un­prece­dented 10th ti­tle

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY DOU­GLAS ROB­SON

In a ten­nis sea­son marked by resur­gent sur­prises, glar­ing ab­sences and new faces, one rite of spring has re­mained in­tact: the loom­ing pres­ence of Rafael Nadal at the French Open. The year’s sec­ond ma­jor, and only Grand Slam on clay, will be­gin its 15-day run Sun­day.

With the world’s top-ranked play­ers, Andy Mur­ray and No­vak Djokovic, suf­fer­ing patchy first halves of 2017 — as well as Roger Fed­erer tak­ing a pass on Paris for the sec­ond con­sec­u­tive year — Nadal is once again the fa­vorite at Roland Gar­ros, where he has won the cham­pi­onship an un­prece­dented nine times.

No man or woman has racked up dou­bledigit wins at any of the four Grand Slam events in the mod­ern era. Nadal, who will turn 31 next month and most re­cently cap­tured the crown in Paris in 2014, could be the first.

The swash­buck­ling Spaniard is 17-1 on clay this year, hav­ing swept ti­tles at Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid for his best tuneup on dirt since 2013. His only hic­cup head­ing to Paris, where he was seeded fourth in Fri­day’s draw, was a quar­ter­fi­nal de­feat May 19 in Rome to as­cend­ing star Do­minic Thiem of Aus­tria.

“[It] is true that if you do the things well, then you have more chances in Roland Gar­ros,” the 14-time Grand Slam win­ner said fol­low­ing his loss in Italy. “That’s prob­a­bly what’s hap­pened for me. I did the things very well, so I hope to be ready to play my best

ten­nis in Roland Gar­ros.”

Although Nadal has dom­i­nated Fed­erer on clay (13-2), he won’t have to con­tend with the 18-time Grand Slam cham­pion from Switzer­land, who de­feated Nadal in five sets at the Aus­tralian Open fi­nal and twice more on hard courts this spring. Fed­erer, 35, de­cided to skip the en­tire clay-court sea­son to pre­pare for grass at Wim­ble­don.

Nadal could face Djokovic, the de­fend­ing cham­pion at Roland Gar­ros, in the semi­fi­nals. But the No. 2 seed has strug­gled with sea­son-long in­con­sis­tency. Per­haps the big­gest threat to Nadal’s bid is No. 3 seed Stan Wawrinka, the 2015 French Open cham­pion who is com­ing off a ti­tle on clay in Geneva this past week.

“The top three guys are com­ing in un­der­cooked,” said Pa­trick McEn­roe, the ESPN com­men­ta­tor and for­mer U.S. Davis Cup cap­tain.

The women’s field? It’s an odd­s­mak­ers’ hell.

Starved of star power, a Grand Slam tour­na­ment has rarely been so ripe for the tak­ing. If any­one wants it.

“This is a new stan­dard of be­ing wide open for the women,” ESPN an­a­lyst Pam Shriver said.

Ser­ena Wil­liams, who swept to a mod­ern-era record 23rd ma­jor at the Aus­tralian Open with­out drop­ping a set, is sit­ting out the re­main­der of the sea­son af­ter an­nounc­ing she is preg­nant.

Two-time French Open win­ner Maria Shara­pova is miss­ing be­cause tour­na­ment of­fi­cials de­nied the 30-year-old Rus­sian a wild-card en­try fol­low­ing her re­turn from a 15-month dop­ing ban in April. Her rank­ing is not high enough for direct en­try.

For­mer No. 1 Vic­to­ria Azarenka is not yet back from ma­ter­nity leave — she an­nounced on Twit­ter on Mon­day that she will re­turn on grass next month.

Mean­while, top-seeded An­gelique Ker­ber has strug­gled to match her break­through per­for­mance from 2016, which in­cluded Aus­tralian Open and U.S. Open ti­tles, a Wim­ble­don fi­nal and the year’s top rank­ing. The 29-year-old Ker­ber limps into Paris with­out a ti­tle this sea­son and a 3-3 record on clay.

That has many fo­cused on third-seeded Si­mona Halep, who has never won a ma­jor. The 5-foot-6 Ro­ma­nian is one of the best movers and ball strik­ers on tour. The 2014 French Open fi­nal­ist seems to have re­gained her form on clay with deep runs in Stuttgart and Rome and the de­fense of her crown in Madrid. But Halep, 25, could be com­pro­mised by an an­kle in­jury suf­fered in the Ital­ian Open fi­nal.

“No­body has stepped up,” seven-time French Open cham­pion Chris Evert said. “It’s go­ing to come down to be­ing healthy, con­fi­dent, and hold­ing nerves.”

The same con­cerns had dogged Nadal in re­cent sea­sons. Ham­pered by in­juries and con­fi­dence woes, his re­sults at ma­jor tour­na­ments lagged. Some won­dered whether his best days were be­hind him.

A year ago, the Spaniard ap­peared to be round­ing into form in Paris when he was forced to with­draw in the third round with a left wrist in­jury — the source of power for his vi­cious, whirling south­paw fore­hand that is so dif­fi­cult to counter on clay.

He missed Wim­ble­don, re­turned be­fore he was com­pletely healed to com­pete at the Rio Olympics (where he snagged a gold medal in dou­bles), and then bowed out of the U.S. Open’s fourth round to Lu­cas Pouille of France. It was the first year since 2004 in which Nadal failed to ad­vance to a Grand Slam quar­ter­fi­nal.

The Spaniard then shut down his sea­son in Oc­to­ber to fully re­cover.

In the off­sea­son, he hired fel­low Mal­lor­can and long­time men­tor Car­los Moya to join his team, which in­cludes his child­hood coach and un­cle, Toni Nadal. Moya, a for­mer No. 1 and the 1998 French Open cham­pion, has been a good coach­ing fit, bring­ing an ex­tra dash of strate­gic think­ing and big-match ex­pe­ri­ence to the mix.

Nadal is hit­ting big­ger, serv­ing more ef­fec­tively and con­trol­ling the cen­ter of the court with his fore­hand.

As usual, he’s also grind­ing op­po­nents down.

“A big part of his game is bul­ly­ing play­ers around,” Ten­nis Chan­nel com­men­ta­tor Justin Gimel­stob said. “He looks to be back to his old self, phys­i­cally im­pres­sive and im­pos­ing.”

Not that he’s as much of a lock as in years past. The draw, and his some­times-un­co­op­er­a­tive body, could play fac­tors over the course of a gru­el­ing two-week event.

No. 2 Djokovic, last year’s run­ner-up Mur­ray and No. 3 Wawrinka are all ca­pa­ble of play­ing into top form. Wawrinka’s of­fen­sive fire­power and com­fort on clay make him par­tic­u­larly dan­ger­ous, and he’s com­ing off a ti­tle in Geneva.

The slump­ing Djokovic, a 12time ma­jor cham­pion, also shows up at Roland Gar­ros with added in­trigue af­ter an­nounc­ing that for­mer No. 1 An­dre Agassi would join him in Paris with an eye to­ward form­ing a coach­ing re­la­tion­ship. On pa­per, it looks like a nat­u­ral al­liance: Both have sim­i­lar play­ing styles, and Agassi cer­tainly knows the highs and lows of a ca­reer that stretches past 30.

“He’s been through ev­ery­thing I’m go­ing through,” Djokovic said in Rome of Agassi.

Nadal — 72-2 life­time at Roland Gar­ros and the win­ningest player on clay in his­tory — has been through it all. Once again on his fa­vored crushed brick of Paris, he has mo­men­tum, too.

“It’s Rafa and then pretty much ev­ery­one else,” Gimel­stob said.

“He looks to be back to his old self.” Ten­nis Chan­nel com­men­ta­tor Justin Gimel­stob, on Rafael Nadal

MAX ROSSI/REUTERS

BENOIT TESSIER/REUTERS

Rafael Nadal is rid­ing the mo­men­tum of three re­cent ti­tles on clay.

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