Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal can tie Roger Federer’s Slam record with 13th French Open

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For all of the many qualities contributing to Rafael Nadal’s unprecedented superiority at the French Open — the bullwhip of a high-bouncing lefty forehand, the reflex returns, the cover-every-corner athleticism, the endless energy and grit — there’s one element that stands above all the rest.

According to the opponent Nadal beat in the last two finals in Paris, anyway.

“You go into the match knowing that even your best tennis, even if you play it over three, four hours, might not be enough. I mean, if you do it, you maybe have a little chance, but you have to go to your limit on every single rally, every single point,” Dominic Thiem, who won the U.S. Open less than two weeks ago, told The Associated Press.

“That makes it not easy to go into the match,” Thiem said. “And that’s the mental part, I guess.”

When main-draw competition begins Sunday at Roland Garros, Thiem and every other player in the men’s bracket will be pursuing Nadal as the 34-year-old from Spain pursues history.

If Nadal manages to claim a 13th French Open championship — extending his own record for the most singles trophies won by anyone at any major tennis tournament — he would, more significantly, also collect his 20th Grand Slam title overall, tying Roger Federer’s record for a man.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Nadal’s tally elsewhere: four U.S. Opens, two Wimbledons, one Australian Open.

He spoke Friday in Paris about what “probably are the most difficult conditions for me ever in Roland Garros” — a lack of matches in 2020; a new brand of tennis balls (“super slow, heavy”); cooler weather and plenty of rain in the forecast.

“But you know what?” Nadal said. “I am here to fight and to play with the highest intensity possible.”

Asked recently about the possibility of catching the 39-year-old Federer, out for the rest of the season after a pair of operations on his right knee, Nadal expressed a sentiment he’s uttered before.

Climbing the Grand Slam list, Nadal said, is “not an obsession at all.”

“I know that you put a lot of attention on all of this,” he replied when the topic was raised last week at the Italian Open, Nadal’s first tournament since February because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Of course I would love to finish my career with 25, but (that’s) something that probably will not happen. I’m going to keep fighting to produce chances, and then when I finish my career, let’s see, no?” he said. “I just want to keep enjoying tennis. And that’s it. If I am playing well, I know I normally have my chances. If not, going to be impossible. That’s it.”

There is, of course, another great of the game playing during this era and, like Nadal, gaining on Federer.

That would be No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic, who had won five of seven major titles to raise his total to 17 before being disqualified at the U.S. Open for accidentally hitting a line judge with a ball while walking to a changeover.

In this oddest of years, the Grand Slam season will drawing to a close in France; the clay-court major was postponed from May until now because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Roland Garros is the last Slam, the last opportunity of this season. So we all know who the main favorite is there: Obviously, it’s Nadal. And everything that he has achieved there, losing maybe a couple matches in his entire career on that court … is probably the most impressive record that anybody has on any court,” Djokovic said. “So, yeah, of course you would put him right there in front as a favorite to win it.”

For the record: Nadal has won 93 of 95 matches in the French Open and his last 21 in a row.

So what makes him so dominant there?

“He’s an unbelievably great tennis player. Probably on clay, a little bit better than on the other surfaces,” Thiem said. “He’s left-handed, which makes it very uncomfortable. And then his forehand, the topspin on the clay, it’s cruel to play.”

Thiem takes notes and hopes to emulate aspects of Nadal’s game.

So do others.

In Rome, for example, two-time Grand Slam champion Simona Halep and one of her coaches, Artemon Apostu-Efremov, caught one of Nadal’s training sessions.

“We were watching the way he hits the ball, the acceleration, the energy he has on the court and the way he practices 100%. It’s always an inspiration,” Apostu-Efremov said.

“This dedication on the court and focus on court,” he said, “it’s something that, for sure, could be transferred to Simona.”

Nadal wound up losing his third match in Italy, which is neither ideal form nor the sort of prep work he is accustomed to ahead of Roland Garros.

Still, Nadal at the French Open is unlike anyone else, anywhere else.

“Regardless of how he feels, I’m sure he’ll find a way,” said Stefanos Tsitsipas, a 2019 Australian Open semifinalist seeded No. 5 in Paris. “He always finds a way, every single year. Clay is his surface. I’m sure he’s going to do well.”

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Rafael Nadal to miss U.S. Open; men’s, women’s singles fields named

Rafael Nadal
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Rafael Nadal is not entered in the U.S. Open, joining the recovering Roger Federer in missing the first Grand Slam tennis tournament since the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s the first time a Grand Slam tournament main draw will be missing both legends since the 1999 U.S. Open.

“The situation is very complicated worldwide, the COVID-19 cases are increasing, it looks like we still don’t have control of it,” was posted on Nadal’s social media. “This is a decision I never wanted to take, but I have decided to follow my heart this time and for the time being I rather not travel.”

The U.S. Open starts as scheduled Aug. 31 without fans. The rescheduled French Open, which Nadal has won a record 12 times, is scheduled to start two weeks after the U.S. Open ends. Nadal did not mention in Tuesday’s statement whether he planned to play Roland Garros.

Nadal won his fourth U.S. Open in 2019, defeating Russian Daniil Medvedev in a five-set final. That moved Nadal within one Grand Slam singles title of Federer’s record 20.

Federer previously announced he is out for the rest of 2020 following a right knee procedure.

U.S. Open Entries: Men | Women

The U.S. Open fields are led by top-ranked Novak Djokovic and 23-time Grand Slam singles champion Serena Williams.

Other notable players not on main-draw entry lists published Tuesday: women’s No. 1 Ash Barty and 2016 U.S. Open winner Stan Wawrinka. Other than Barty, the top 28 women in the world rankings are entered, including defending champion Bianca Andreescu.

Djokovic, Dominic Thiem, Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev are the top-ranked men in the field. Djokovic and 2014 U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic, plus first alternate (and wild-card candidate) Andy Murray, are the only male Grand Slam singles champions in the field.

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Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal rivalry swung at 2008 Wimbledon

Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal
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Rafael Nadal‘s win over Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final proved to be more than an instant classic, a book, a documentary. It, more than any of their other 39 matches, became an enduring snapshot of a shift atop tennis.

Nadal prevailed 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7 in 4 hours, 48 minutes, dropping to a flashbub-lit Centre Court lawn at 9:16 p.m. local time. The match is part of NBCSN’s Breakfast at Wimbledon programming on Tuesday night.

“Compared to the way things were for years,” Nadal said in the 2018 film, “Strokes of Genius,” “history was now being rewritten.”

Before that match, Nadal had won four Grand Slams — all at the French Open, though he had said since childhood that Wimbledon was his crown jewel. Before that match, Federer never lost a Grand Slam final outside of the French Open, including capturing the previous five Wimbledons (and the last two against Nadal in the final).

Federer had been No. 1 in the world since February 2004. In a three-month stretch in mid-2008, Nadal spanked Federer in the French Open final (6-1, 6-3, 6-0), ended Federer’s Open Era record 65-match win streak on grass and won an Olympic singles title, which remains the hole in Federer’s resume.

Wimbledon stung the most.

“In the moment itself, I was like, oh my god, this is the worst day of my life,” Federer said in “Strokes of Genius.” “It was really like maybe three, four, five, six, seven weeks after the match that I really started to feel the magnitude of the match.

“I had to embrace the idea of a rival. In the beginning, I didn’t want to have one. Then I eventually realized there’s something to get out of this situation, so I might have to adjust my game a little bit.”

After Nadal won their 2009 Australian Open final duel — Federer memorably lamenting, “God, it’s killing me,” in his tearful runner-up speech — the Spaniard had five straight victories in the rivalry, spanning all three surfaces. He went up 13-6 in their head-to-head.

Federer led the Grand Slam titles race — 13-6 — but Nadal was five years younger. At the same age, Federer had four fewer Slams than Nadal.

“The official changing of the guard,” NBC Sports analyst John McEnroe said after Nadal’s win on the 2008 Wimbledon broadcast. “He’s officially taken over the mantle of the best player in the world.”

Federer would get it back. He finally prevailed in Paris in 2009 (after Nadal was stunned by Robin Soderling), then returned to No. 1 after winning 2009 Wimbledon. Nadal missed defending his title due to knee problems.

Nadal, Federer and Novak Djokovic spent the 2010s trading Slams and the No. 1 ranking, each enduring lulls (Federer’s the most concerning).

After the most recent Slam, the Australian Open last January, the career Grand Slam titles tally: Federer 20, Nadal 19, Djokovic 17. The greatest-ever discussion sways with every Slam, a debate that began in earnest in 2008.

“If this doesn’t spark interest in our great sport,” McEnroe said on that Wimbledon broadcast, “I don’t know what will.”

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