Rafael Nadal strode Thursday morning onto Court Philippe Chatrier, where he has lifted a record 13 Coupes des Mousquetaires, and spotted Iga Swiatek seated in a chair. He diverted his path from passing behind Swiatek to approaching in front of her, stuck out his right hand and offered a “congrats” and a hand clasp.
Maybe not a torch passing, but it laid clear how different this French Open is looking.
Nadal, for so long the dominant figure at Roland Garros, enters this tournament as the joint third favorite in the men’s draw. Swiatek, who broke through to win this major at age 19 in 2020, is now so far ahead of her foes that she may be favored over the rest of the field in Paris.
Nadal was carrying multiple tennis rackets, some towels and a racket bag over his right shoulder. He was wearing a white T-shirt with an image printed smack in the middle of his chest of a forearm and fist connected by a white wristband bearing his bull logo, an image that conveys his trademark fight and determination.
He will need every bit of that these next two weeks. And it might not be enough.
For the first time, Nadal enters the French Open having not won a clay-court tournament so far in the season (not counting the pandemic-shortened 2020). After going 21-1 in the winter hard-court swing, he lost before the semifinals of two clay events.
He won the Australian Open in January, breaking his tie with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic for the men’s career major titles record (21). Starting in March, a rib injury followed by the return of chronic foot pain that had him considering retirement last year stunted his prep for Paris.
“I am not injured. I am a player living with an injury,” he said last week after losing in the third round of the Italian Open, one of four clay events he previously won at least 10 times. “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.”
Nadal often downplayed his chances going into past majors (including before Australia), but now he is 35, older than any previous French Open singles champion in the Open Era (since 1968).
“Suffering after [the Italian Open] for a couple of days, but I feel better, no?” Nadal said Friday. “That’s why I’m here.
“My real goal is just practice well, put myself in a position to be competitive since the very first round, and then let’s see what can happen.”
He may have to go through not only his longtime rival Djokovic (who beat Nadal in last year’s semifinals in Paris), but also his 19-year-old countryman Carlos Alcaraz, who won his last two clay events, including back-to-back match victories over Nadal and Djokovic.
Thursday’s draw only made the task more difficult. Nadal is in Djokovic’s quarter and Alcaraz’s half. Stefanos Tsitsipas, who blew a two-set lead over Djokovic in last year’s final, is the only man out of the top five favorites in the bottom half. The Greek was a distant fourth among the favorites, but after the draw pulled even with Nadal behind Djokovic and Alcaraz.
Swiatek has no company, oddsmakers say. The only person in Paris who may know what it’s like to be so favored is years-ago Nadal.
“The way that she’s playing this year looks unstoppable,” Nadal said, “but let’s let her play with calm and without an extra pressure.”
The Polish star was gifted the No. 1 ranking when Australian Ash Barty abruptly retired in March. She earned the right to keep it solely on her own merit. Swiatek is on a 28-match win streak, with 19 of the last 20 victories coming in straight sets.
If she lifts the trophy on June 4, she will have the longest WTA Tour run of victories since Venus Williams in 2000.
“I already know that I did some great stuff this season, so I feel like I can just play freely and not think I have to win some tournaments, or I have to win some matches or I have to save some points,” she said after winning her fifth consecutive tournament in Rome last week.
The women’s tour has changed mightily in the last year.
Barty, a dominant No. 1, won Wimbledon and the Australian Open and left the sport for a second time before turning 26. Serena Williams, now 40, hasn’t played since Wimbledon. Naomi Osaka came into last year’s French Open having won the previous two majors, but she took a break last summer after what happened in Paris and enters this tournament unseeded without much match time on clay.
Swiatek’s toughest test could come in a potential fourth round against 2018 French Open champion Simona Halep of Romania. No. 3 seed Paula Badosa of Spain could await in the semifinals. Tunisian Ons Jabeur is the favorite in the other half of the draw.
Swiatek won her most recent meeting with all of them.
It appears Nadal will not be the only player offering her a congratulatory handshake on Chatrier over the next two weeks.
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