There are probably worse cities than Paris to end a love affair but if Rafael Nadal and Roland Garros begin divorce proceedings during the next fortnight it will be a painful conclusion to the sport’s most enduring relationship.
The Spaniard is angry with his hosts, no question. His hosts seem indifferent. And Nadal’s rant on Friday about the cold weather, the heavy balls and the slow courts at the very place where he has lost twice in 95 matches has persuaded some respected observers to favour Novak Djokovic to rip the Coupe des Mousquetaires away from him after 12 astonishing triumphs reaching back to 2005.
While these oldest of rivals will most likely be the last of 128 contenders left standing in Court Philippe Chatrier two Sundays from now, the journey may take more out of 34-year-old Nadal than 33-year-old Djokovic. Certainly, betting sentiment is with the Serb since Diego Schwartzman beat Nadal in the Rome quarter-finals last week. And nearly half of online punters this weekend are backing Djokovic, with just a third sticking with the defending champion.
Nadal was not alone in wondering why the tournament switched from the lighter, more “spinnable” Babolat ball, which suits his vicious forehand, to the heavier Wilson, which does not. “This is the first time that we are using Wilson balls on the clay,” Djokovic said. “I agree that the balls are heavy. But also it’s probably because we are almost in October and it’s very cold. The clay is also heavy and wet.
“It’s hard to say whether the ball is heavy in general or is it because we are playing under these slow and heavy conditions? We have to accept it. It’s why we all came a bit earlier to try to get used to the new balls and conditions that are quite different from what we are used to at Roland Garros.”
If Nadal dismisses the unseeded Egor Gerasimov on Monday and works his way past Dan Evans among others (the British No 1 plays Kei Nishikori on Sunday) to reach the quarter-finals, where the US Open runner-up, Alexander Zverev, is his likely opponent, it may be enough to effect a reconciliation with the tournament.
Then again, the Fédération Française de Tennis’s accountants will be pleased whoever wins, as the successful bid for the championship ball was almost certainly much bigger than that of the incumbent, and the uninsured tournament, lumbered with a €160m refurbishment bill for the centre court, desperately needs cash.
Also, the site will be a ghost town for two weeks rather than the usual heaving marketplace, which could explain why Guy Forget, the affable tournament director in four years of expensive change at the venue, held out until the last minute before local authorities forced him to cut the crowd from 5,000 paying customers a day to 1,000, in line with restrictions across the capital and the country because of a worrying increase in coronavirus infections.
While the king embraces dread and doubt, Dominic Thiem, a serious pretender, could hardly be happier in the top half of Nadal’s side of the draw. “I want to do the best I can in every single tournament I play, especially here at Roland Garros,” said the new US Open champion as he prepared for his first-round match against Marin Cilic. “I had four crazy years with two semi-finals, two finals [against Nadal]. I love the conditions here. I love the whole tournament.”
If Nadal, who has played twice in six months, is vulnerable on his beloved clay, Djokovic looks solid, as he has won four titles (including his 18th slam) and lost one of 32 matches in 2020 – and that by disqualification in New York two weeks ago.
The world No 1 has been red-lining emotionally near the end of the most difficult season in the sport’s recent history – and says he will try hard not to explode again – but he has not lost sight of the prize within his reach: overtaking Roger Federer’s record of 20 slam titles. The Swiss, resting his healing knees, can only watch from a distance as Nadal seeks to draw alongside him – if he can hold Djokovic and younger opponents at bay.
Mats Wilander, who won three of his seven majors in Paris and commentates for Eurosport, says: “The temperatures in Paris now and over the next two weeks are going to be colder than normal, which is not great for somebody who spins the ball, like Nadal. Novak doesn’t really care if it’s cold or warm. I think he is the favourite, just ahead of Nadal and Thiem.”
As for Andy Murray, his French adventure could be finis before the sun sets on Sunday if Stan Wawrinka’s knees are in better shape than the Scot’s hip. Both are closer to retirement than a fourth slam, but they will bring the best they have got left to Chatrier in the concluding match on day one.
Murray says of the 35-year-old Swiss: “We have always got on well, not really had any issues. The last few years we have probably been closer. I message him a bit, he messages me after matches and tournaments – which wouldn’t have been the case six, seven years ago.
“Both of us have gone through various injury problems around the same time. There is mutual respect. I am glad he has managed to get himself back to playing top tennis after a pretty nasty knee issue. He is a great, great player, and a good guy.”
The former world No 1 added: “What I would love is six months of consistent practice, tournaments, resting, so the schedule is smooth. The thing which is hard is that where I am ranked now, for example , I can feel good this week and then I draw Stan in the first round – or Djokovic. In Cincinnati [last month] I beat [Alexander] Zverev, who was seeded three.
“You are playing the best players early in tournaments and, with the two-year ranking system, it’s a lot harder to improve your ranking. No one is losing points each week. To get to 50 in the world, the points you will need will be significantly more than what they usually are. Players are adding to their points tally, whereas I [am not].
“Apart from Antwerp and the points at the end of the year, I hardly have any points on the computer. That’s the thing that will be challenging: making sure you turn up for the tournaments, ready to play and win against the top players early on in the events. You rely a bit on draws and hopefully get a few breaks along the way.
“I am aware it will be really hard to get back up there, but I feel if I can five, six months where I am able to compete in the tournaments. I want to. I will definitely win some more tournaments and have some more good wins.”