At some point during the second week of this year’s spectatorless United States Open, Rafael Nadal took to Instagram with a video.
While Nadal’s countryman Pablo Carreño Busta was suffering through a four-hour quarterfinal win over Denis Shapovalov, 21, of Canada, Nadal was on a red clay court about 4,000 miles away.
Nadal’s video showed him, cap on backward, trademark sleeveless T-shirt, sneakers scuffing the baseline tape. He was practicing with his friend Grigor Dmitrov, who had just flown to Nadal’s tennis academy in Manacor, Spain, after losing a five-set match in the second round at the Open. If Nadal suffered from any rustiness for not having played a tour match in more than six months, he didn’t show it. If he felt a hint of regret at not defending his Open title, he gave no indication.
What Nadal did in that short clip was send an emboldened message to all challengers that even if he didn’t feel comfortable coming to the United States to compete during a global pandemic, he was more than ready to defend his 12 titles at the French Open.
“When you take positions, you accept and you have to go with everything,” Nadal said from Rome last week, where he returned to play at the Italian Open. “I had to decide one thing for me, my family, everything.”
He won his first two matches there over Carreño Busta and Dusan Lajovic, dropping six games, before being upset in the quarterfinals by Diego Schwartzman of Argentina, the eventual runner-up to Novak Djokovic.
While some players have had access to practice facilities, and others signed up for exhibition tours in Europe and the United States, Nadal was hunkered down with his family in an apartment in Majorca.
For more than two months, he barely ventured outside, returning to practice at the academy only in late May.
In this wildly truncated pro tennis season, with the French Open moved from the spring to late September and early October, Nadal is returning to Roland Garros, where he has dominated.
In 15 years, he has lost just two of 95 matches there, not including a withdrawal against Marcel Granollers in 2016 because of a wrist injury.
His only losses were to Djokovic in the quarterfinals in 2015 and a shocker against Robin Soderling in the round of 16 in 2009. Only twice has he been taken to five sets, a 9-7 in the fifth semifinal win over Djokovic in 2013 and a first-round victory over John Isner in 2011.
Should he win again this year, Nadal, 34, will have amassed 100 French Open match wins. With his four U.S. Open, one Australian and two Wimbledon titles, he will also tie Roger Federer’s record of 20 career majors. Djokovic is close behind with 17.
Federer, whose only tournament appearance this year was a semifinal loss to Djokovic at the Australian Open in February, is out for the remainder of the season after knee surgery.
“What makes Nadal great is simply that he puts more balls into play, especially on the return of serve,” said Ivan Lendl, the three-time French Open champion. “His court positioning is better than anyone’s. He’s not only physically strong, but mentally too.”
For Nadal, the ideal French Open preparation is to play springtime clay-court tournaments in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid and Rome. This year, all of those events, except Rome, were shelved because of the coronavirus. Nadal’s only match preparation before the French was the Italian Open.
“It’s obvious that to feel 100 percent you need matches,” Nadal said. “I didn’t compete for the last six months, so for me, the first goal is to go on court and feel myself competitive. That’s a good test, without great expectations.”
Nadal’s first-ever French Open main draw match in 2005, when he was 19, was a win over Lars Burgsmüller of Germany. He defeated Federer in the semifinals and then dispatched Mariano Puerta of Argentina to win the title.
Since then, Nadal has beaten Federer five more times on Roland Garros’s crushed red clay, including in straight sets in last year’s semifinals. He also has five wins (against the one loss) over Djokovic and four over Dominic Thiem, including in the last two finals.
Kevin Anderson of South Africa, who has five career losses to Nadal, including in the final of the 2017 U.S. Open, first met him in 1998 when the two 12-year-olds were paired together for a practice session in Stuttgart, Germany. Even then, Nadal’s reputation preceded him.
“Everyone looked up to him and wanted to be like him, including me,” Anderson said. “His consistency is just unbelievable. His experience alone is worth 30 points a match. You’re not really playing him; you’re playing his reputation.”
As good as Nadal is on clay, he also has prowess on hard courts. His four U.S. Open titles are one shy of the record shared by Federer, Pete Sampras and Jimmy Connors.
In winning the 2010 U.S. Open, Nadal claimed three majors on three different surfaces that year and became the first man to win Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the same season since Rod Laver in 1969.
“Rafa is one of the best champions in our sport,” said Fabio Fognini of Italy, who has lost to Nadal 12 times but beaten him four, including in five sets at the 2015 U.S. Open. “Say something that Rafa can’t do? I don’t know. He’s able to do everything. If he’s fit, it’s really, really hard to beat him at Roland Garros.”
If there is one player with the greatest chance to unseat Nadal in Paris this year, it is Thiem, who defeated Alexander Zverev of Germany in a fifth-set tiebreaker to claim his first major at the U.S. Open two weeks ago. Thiem, 27, fought back from two sets down and a break in the third to outlast Zverev, 23.
Thiem may have lost to Nadal in the last two French Open finals, but he beat Nadal in their most recent meeting, the semifinals of the Australian Open. Thiem also beat him on clay in the Barcelona Open last year before falling 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 in the French Open final.
“This win will help Dominic a lot to be more calm,” Nicolas Massu, Thiem’s coach, said of the U.S. Open win. “I think for sure this year, or whenever, he will have a chance to win the French Open.”
For Nadal, it was a gamble to skip the U.S. Open to prepare on clay for the French, especially given that he would have been the defending champion in New York.
“This is a weird year, something we’ve never seen before,” Lendl said. “We know that Rafa has practiced, but will he have enough matches on clay? Will the other guys be able to adjust coming from the hard courts? It just seems that there are more questions than answers, and that makes it very difficult to predict anything.”