French Open 2020

Ready for 'most difficult' defence

Nadal, short of competitive matches, admits colder weather and new balls pose challenges

Rafael Nadal wearing a mask before his Italian Open quarter-final loss to Diego Schwartzman last week. The Spaniard has played just three matches since the coronavirus shutdown. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Rafael Nadal wearing a mask before his Italian Open quarter-final loss to Diego Schwartzman last week. The Spaniard has played just three matches since the coronavirus shutdown. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PARIS • Rafael Nadal may have won the French Open a record 12 times, but the Spaniard feels this year's conditions will be the most difficult he has ever faced at Roland Garros and he must be at his best to have a chance of retaining his title again.

The clay-court Grand Slam, which starts today, is usually held from May to June but was pushed back due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The weather is much cooler at this time of the year and the temperatures have further dipped due to rain in Paris.

Organisers are also using a different ball, making the conditions more unfamiliar for the Spanish world No. 2.

"What you need is the right energy to accept every single thing. That's what I'm doing," said Nadal, who prefers warmer conditions and faster clay courts.

"Just stay positive knowing that the conditions are not perfect for me, maybe not perfect for others either, and accept I am going to need my best version to have chances."

Nadal, who is one Grand Slam behind Roger Federer's record men's haul of 20 titles, skipped the US Open due to the pandemic and then lost in the quarter-finals of the ATP Masters in Rome last week to Argentinian Diego Schwartzman.

The Rome event was Nadal's first after the lengthy shutdown and world No. 1 Novak Djokovic said that it showed his great rival was not unbeatable on clay courts.

"Yeah, 100 per cent true. I always have been beatable on clay. He beat me a lot of times," Nadal admitted.

"Conditions here probably are the most difficult for me ever in Roland Garros for so many different factors. Ball completely different. I think it's not the right ball to play on a clay court. Ball is super slow, heavy. Slow conditions.

"Preparations have been less than usual. But I'm here to fight, to play with the highest intensity possible."​

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    DOMINIC THIEM (AUT) 

    World ranking:

    Best Slam result: Winner (US Open 2020) 

    Best French Open result: Runner-up (2018, 2019) 

    Thiem was labelled the flag-bearer for the next generation but fell short in three finals on the biggest stage. He finally got his break at Flushing Meadows earlier this month, winning his first Grand Slam title days after turning 27.

    The Austrian baseliner, known for one of the most powerful single-handed backhands in the game, reached the final at Roland Garros the last two years - only to lose against Rafael Nadal.

    Nevertheless, his groundstrokes and ability to win long rallies make clay the ideal surface for Thiem to win his second Major.

    ALEXANDER ZVEREV (GER)

    World ranking:

    Best Slam result: Runner-up (US Open 2020) 

    Best French Open result: Q-finals (2018, 2019) 

    A mainstay in the top five in recent years, Zverev's stock fell until he reached the US Open final. He was one set away from his first Grand Slam title, before it all fell apart in the final against Thiem.

    The 23-year-old relies on a fiery first serve and powerful groundstrokes. But the German lacks that same cutting edge on his second serve to pose a threat on clay.

    However, two Masters titles on clay and two quarter-final appearances at Roland Garros in the last two years will fill him with confidence heading into the final Grand Slam of the year.

    DIEGO SCHWARTZMAN (ARG)

    World ranking: 13 

    Best Slam result: Q-finals (French Open 2018, US Open 2017 & 2019) 

    Best French Open result: Q-finals (2018) The 28-year-old missed the chance to break into the world's top 10 for the first time when he lost to Novak Djokovic in the final in Rome last week.

    However, the diminutive Argentine will take solace in the fact that he got the better of Nadal in their quarter-final.

    A counter-puncher who uses his speed and agility to cover the court well, Schwartzman's game is suited to claycourts, where his defensive abilities create numerous attacking opportunities and passing shots. 

    REUTERS

IMPERFECT CONDITIONS

Just stay positive knowing that the conditions are not perfect for me, maybe not perfect for others either, and accept I am going to need my best version to have chances.

RAFAEL NADAL, 12-time Roland Garros champion, who prefers warmer conditions and faster clay courts.

He will begin his campaign against Egor Gerasimov, the 83rd-ranked Belarusian.

But he will not benefit from the warm air and slippery, bouncy surface that usually makes his spinny shots all but impossible to handle.

"The weather is so cold," added the second seed, who was quick to notice that his practice session on Friday was when the temperature was at a 9 deg C with even a brief deluge of hailstones.

The 34-year-old is seeded to face Djokovic, the champion in Rome, in the final. The Serb and the retired Robin Soderling are the only two men to have beaten the "King of Clay" in Paris in 15 years.

However, Nadal still holds a 6-1 advantage over the 2016 champion, and 17-time Major winner, at Roland Garros. His win-loss record stands at 93-2 and he has earned US$22 million (S$30.3 million) at the French Open alone.

Statistics aside, former champion Mats Wilander believes that Djokovic is the favourite to claim a second French Open crown.

"Someone like Rafa will go to bed every night in Paris thinking please be 30 degrees, blue skies and even windy tomorrow. Now he'll wake up and it's 12 degrees and he has to play someone who hits the ball heavy," he said.

"I can't imagine anyone being more prepared for a slowish clay court than Novak. This is a massive opportunity for him."

Nadal is also on course to play newly crowned US Open champion Dominic Thiem in the semi-finals, the Austrian he beat to win the title in 2018 and 2019.

Fuelled with self-belief after his breakthrough, Thiem will believe he can win the title on his best surface.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE


FRENCH OPEN

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 27, 2020, with the headline 'Ready for 'most difficult' defence'. Print Edition | Subscribe