French Open 2019

I don't care if I'm the French Open favourite, says Rafael Nadal

World No. 2 Rafael Nadal holds an incredible French Open win-loss record of 86-2, and hit top form by winning his ninth Italian Open last week after beating old rival Novak Djokovic.
World No. 2 Rafael Nadal holds an incredible French Open win-loss record of 86-2, and hit top form by winning his ninth Italian Open last week after beating old rival Novak Djokovic.PHOTO: REUTERS

Instead of worrying about a 12th French Open title, Rafa's mind is solely on his fitness & form

PARIS • Rafael Nadal is hunting a record-extending and almost unbelievable 12th Roland Garros title, an achievement that would be remarkable even for the King of Clay.

But the Spaniard said on Friday that he "doesn't care" if he is the red-hot favourite when the Grand Slam gets under way today, insisting that there are a host of players in contention for the trophy.

"I don't care if I'm the favourite," said the 32-year-old, who has dropped only one set in Paris since 2016.

"I care about feeling well and playing well. I appreciate that you (the media) see me like that, but (Dominic) Thiem, Novak (Djokovic), (Roger) Federer, (Stefanos) Tsitsipas, who has been playing well, (Juan Martin) del Potro, (Kei) Nishikori - all those that are the best in the world will be favourites.

"The only thing that worries me is being well and being competitive. The only favourite that matters is the one who has the cup at home in two weeks' time."

The world No. 2 holds an incredible French Open win-loss record of 86-2, and hit top form by winning his ninth Italian Open last week after beating old rival Djokovic.

He could move to within two titles of Federer's all-time men's record of 20 Grand Slam titles, if he lifts the The Musketeers' Cup on June 9.

Before his triumph in Rome, it had been far from a trademark clay-court season for Nadal.

He failed in his bids for 12th titles in both Monte Carlo and Barcelona, where he lost in the semi-finals to Fabio Fognini and Thiem respectively. Another last-four exit followed in Madrid against Greek rising star Tsitsipas.

  • Three men to watch

  • DOMINIC THIEM, 25 (AUT)

    World ranking: 4 Grand Slams: 0
    Best French Open result: Runner-up (2018)

    The Austrian's elegant game is tailor-made for clay. While his style is very different from the more powerful Rafael Nadal's, he boasts the same stinging topspin off both flanks.

    He added aggression to his game and it paid off last year when he reached the final and, for a while, went toe-to-toe with the great Spaniard. Victory over Nadal on his way to the Barcelona title last month would have fuelled Thiem's confidence.

    STEFANOS TSITSIPAS, 20 (GRE)

    World ranking: 6
    Grand Slams: 0
    Best French Open result: 2nd round (2018)

    The tall 1.93m Greek is up to a career-high sixth in the world and will definitely be a danger in Paris. His powerful all-action style, including one of the best single-handed backhands, and flowing blond locks, have already made him a fan's favourite.

    The Athenian plays with a smile but, in reaching the Madrid final - beating Nadal en route - he proved again that for all the flair, he also possesses the killer instinct of a champion.

    FABIO FOGNINI, 32 (ITA)

    World ranking: 11
    Gand Slams: 0
    Best French Open result: Q-finals (2011)
    It is hard to imagine Fognini lifting the trophy but, on his day, the Italian is a box-office hit on his favourite surface - there are few better players to watch. He claimed his first Masters 1000 title in Monte Carlos this year, taking out Nadal in the semi-finals, to hit a career-high world No. 11.

    He owns a killer drop shot and a bewitching range of angles with his groundstrokes, although his serve and his propensity to switch off mid-match could harm his chances.

    REUTERS

However, former champion Mats Wilander, now an analyst for Eurosport, said that Nadal is finding his form at just the right moment.

"I think he is peaking involuntarily, and he is going to be so much better come the quarter-finals or semi-finals than he is now," he said.

"Maybe his clay-court season has been more of a rollercoaster ride this year. But, at the same time, you can get away with that at the French Open over five sets."

Nadal admits it took him time to rediscover his top form after a one-month absence with the right-knee injury which forced him to withdraw from Indian Wells in March.

"When you're recovering from an injury it's also difficult to recover mentally," he said.

"Without playing especially well at the start of the clay season, you have to have the humility to value small improvements. For me, one very positive thing was that before I started Rome, it was not a disaster - I'd made three semi-finals.

"It's not incredible, but it's not a total disaster either."

He faces qualifier Yannick Hanfmann of Germany in his opener but could meet Federer or Tsitsipas in a potential semi-final clash.

Nadal has lost to only two men at Roland Garros since his triumphant debut in 2005 - the retired Robin Soderling and this year's top seed Djokovic, who he could face in the final as the Serb chases a fourth consecutive Grand Slam crown.

A year ago, Djokovic, who turned 32 last Wednesday, arrived in Paris in a funk, still grappling with his game following elbow surgery.

A quarter-final exit sparked a return to his best though and he went on to win Wimbledon, the US Open and this year's Australian Open, taking his Grand Slam haul to 15.

The world No. 1 believes he is also peaking at the perfect moment to win four straight Slams for the second time in his career, after he became the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to achieve the feat in 2016.

"There's extra motivation and incentive to win Roland Garros because of the opportunity to hold all four Slams, something I did three years ago, and that gives me enough reason to believe I can do it again," he said on Friday.

Wilander believes that it would be "unbelievable" should it happen again for the Serb, adding that it would be "a bigger deal than Rafa winning 12 French Opens".

Djokovic starts his campaign against Poland's Hubert Hurkacz, the world No. 43.

And, for the first time in four years, the "Big Three" are all competing at the French Open.

Federer is back from his self-imposed Roland Garros exile (since 2015 to focus on Wimbledon), aiming to add to his only title in 2009.

The Swiss, however, played down his chances of winning.

"I don't know. A bit of a question mark for me," said the 37-year-old, who faces unheralded Italian Lorenzo Sonego in the first round.

"A bit of the unknown. I feel like I'm playing good tennis, but is it enough against the top guys when it really comes to the crunch? I'm not sure if it's in my racket."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 26, 2019, with the headline 'Favourite? He dozen care'. Print Edition | Subscribe