Paris: It was a private art exhibition on the Left Bank, but it looked more like a rugby scrum in the Stade de France as the pack surrounding Rafael Nadal pushed and pulled for prime position.
From a safe vantage point across the increasingly overheated gallery, Nadal was obscured from view as he worked his way from painting to painting Friday night, but it was easy to follow his progress with the cell phone screens and iPads that the crowd was holding aloft.
Bjorn Borg said recently that he felt today’s tennis stars had an edge over his generation in that they were more protected from the public. Borg might have changed his mind watching this scene.
Finally, Nadal emerged, sweatier than after some of his more straightforward tennis matches, to the safer haven of a series of interviews. “Man, I could use something to drink,” he said.
No other male tennis player except Borg has matched Nadal’s body of work in Paris, and by the time this French Open ends June 10, Nadal has a fine chance to be in a class of his own.
Linked across the years by topspin and athleticism, Nadal, a flashy left-hander from the Spanish island of Majorca, and Borg, the cool Swede who peaked in the late 1970s, have both won six titles at Roland Garros. But as this year’s tournament got under way Sunday without the top four men’s seeds in action, Nadal was preparing to begin his assault on a seventh. Even during the tennis reign of Novak Djokovic, Nadal deserves to be the favourite again on red clay.
“Of course Rafa is the favourite, and I’m sure he’ll say that he’s not, but he is,” said Paul Annacone, co-coach of Roger Federer. “Even if he doesn’t want to hold onto that, I think he should hold onto it with pride because he’s earned it.”
Nadal has earned it by compiling a phenomenal 45-1 record at the French Open and a 93 percent winning percentage on clay over all that already makes it safe to call him, not Borg, the greatest clay-court player.
Nadal has earned it by shifting the momentum and defeating Djokovic twice on clay in straight sets this season, most meaningfully last Monday in the final in Rome, where Djokovic beat Nadal in 2011. “The first set this year, I can lose that first set, but I won it,” Nadal said. “Probably last year, the same set I will lose it.”
If Nadal falters, he will presumably have several more chances to win his seventh French Open. But Djokovic may never have another chance to hold all four Grand Slam singles titles at once.
Although his week-to-week grip has not been as firm of late, Djokovic has still won the last three major tournaments. If he can win the French Open for the first time, Djokovic will be the first man to hold all four since Rod Laver’s Grand Slam in 1969.
Federer can blame Nadal. In 2006 and 2007, the two years that Federer arrived in Paris holding three major titles, Nadal beat him in the final, both times in four sets. Nadal can blame a thigh injury and the fighting spirit of his Spanish compatriot David Ferrer, who stopped his run for a Slam in the quarterfinals of the 2011 Australian Open.
“This is the opportunity that very few tennis players have in their lives,” Djokovic said. “I’m aware of that, but I accept it as a challenge. It makes me even more motivated, if can say, in a positive way. It makes me feel good about it, rather than, you know, feeling pressured and worried."
That certainly sounds like the right attitude. But when Djokovic last faced big-match pressure at the French Open, last year, Federer knocked him out in a full-throttle semifinal, which stopped Djokovic’s 43-match winning streak and kept him from rising to No. 1 for the first time. Djokovic would not squander his second opportunity, rising to No. 1 after winning Wimbledon a month later.
“I’m not taking anything away from anyone else, but I do hope that it is a Novak-Rafa final because I’d love to see those guys spar in that scenario,” said Jim Courier, the United States Davis Cup captain and a former French Open champion.