Rafael Nadal has won the French Open in all kinds of ways. He’s won it as a teenager, he’s won it without dropping a set, he’s won it as the overwhelming favourite, he’s won it against Roger Federer, he’s won it against Novak Djokovic, he’s won it against Robin Soderling.
Only once has he won it without winning another clay event beforehand that season, and that was in 2020 when the French Open was pushed back to October.
For once, history is not on Nadal’s side in Paris. And nor is time.
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Nadal has appeared to be in a race against time to be fit for the French Open ever since he suffered a rib injury at Indian Wells in late March. On his return in Madrid he was playing catch-up - “like a little bit of pre-season” he said – and at the Italian Open his hopes of a record-extending 22 Grand Slam title next month took a hit as he limped and grimaced during a three-set defeat to Denis Shapovalov.
It wasn’t a new injury, said Nadal, but the return of a chronic foot issue, known as Müller-Weiss disease, which he has apparently been living with since his first French Open win in 2005.
“I had my foot again with a lot of pain,” Nadal said afterwards. “I am a player living with an injury; it is nothing new. It's something that is there. Unfortunately my day-by-day is difficult, honestly… it’s difficult for me to accept the situation sometimes.”
On his French Open hopes, Nadal added: “What can happen in the next couple of days, I don't know. What can happen in one week, I really don't know now.
“First thing that I need to do is to don't have pain to practise, that's it… It's true that during the French Open I’m going to have my doctor there with me. That sometimes helps because you can do things.”
Paris could hardly be further away from Melbourne, and right now the gloom around Nadal could hardly be more different than the celebratory mood when he won the Australian Open just a few months ago. There Nadal spoke about overcoming doubts and “enjoying every single day” as he added another memorable Grand Slam run to his already-bulging collection. The foot injury seemed behind him and already there was one eye on reclaiming his title from Novak Djokovic in Paris.
But as Djokovic declared himself in the “best shape” for the French Open after winning in Rome, Nadal is as short of match practice on clay as he has ever been ahead of the tournament. He has played just five times on the surface this season, winning three matches and losing two.
Perhaps experience will aid Nadal. In 2020 he had played just three matches in Rome before the French Open, and hadn’t previously played since February due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The move from early summer to autumn was not expected to favour him and Nadal said he was expecting “the most difficult conditions” he had faced at the tournament. Yet not only did Nadal win again, he did so without dropping a set (for the fourth time in his career), and absolutely outclassed Djokovic in the final.
Nadal certainly has more than enough credit in the bank to not be written off, especially at the French Open, where in recent years it has almost become customary for him to overcome early-season whispers about his form to win. He also defied expectations in Australia by winning on his return after five months out, and it would be far less of a shock if he is standing on Court Philippe Chatrier lifting La Coupe des Mousquetaires in a few weeks’ time.
But the pecking order has shifted.
In Madrid it was Carlos Alcaraz who looked primed for a first Grand Slam title as he beat Nadal, Djokovic and Alexander Zverev on his way to winning the tournament. In Rome it was Djokovic who came to the fore and asserted himself as the favourite. Stefanos Tsitsipas deserves to be in the mix after arguably putting together the most consistent clay season on the ATP Tour – victory in Monte Carlo, quarter-finals in Barcelona, semi-finals in Madrid, final in Rome. Zverev too has showed encouraging signs in Madrid and Rome.
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Given he seemed to hint in Rome that retirement might not be too far away due to the chronic foot problem, Nadal will be desperate to win the French Open – and will likely do whatever it takes to get through the tournament. Even if he's not at 100% it’s hard to imagine him losing in the first week, given his experience and quality, but the second week could be a case of entering the unknown with his form and fitness.
There’s also the draw to keep an eye on. As he will be seeded fifth, Nadal’s worst-case scenario could be that he ends up in the same half of the draw as Djokovic, Zverev or Tsitsipas, and Alcaraz. The most favourable draw would see Nadal placed with world No. 2 Daniil Medvedev, who lost on his return from a six-week injury lay-off in Geneva this week, either Zverev or Tsitsipas, and seventh seed Andrey Rublev or eighth seed Casper Ruud.
If he gets a good draw then Nadal may go deep. He has always been a fighter and he showed by playing on until the end of the match against Shapovalov that he is not going to throw in the towel. Expect more of the same at the French Open, but this time it’s wait and see how far his foot can take him.
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