In Paris, it’s rafa’s show
Nadal enters French Open in fine form and seeking an unprecedented 10th title
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
Rafael Nadal is riding the momentum of three recent titles on clay.