Watch out Roland Garros — Rafael Nadal might be back.
Nadal, who turns 30 on June 3 during the French Open, has won a record nine titles in southwest Paris. If he achieves the “Decima” — or 10 trophies — just like his beloved Real Madrid did in football’s Champions League in 2014, that will be some way to celebrate a landmark birthday.
“I think Nadal showed that in the last few weeks he’s really confident and it reflects on the court,” 1997 French Open semifinalist Filip Dewulf told CNN. “I think his opponents are feeling it as well.
“He used to have a very big mental advantage because he was unbeatable on clay. He lost that last year but he is slowly getting there again,” added Dewulf, now a tennis writer with Belgium’s Het Laatste Nieuws. “He’s getting a bit of his aura back.
“If you know he is going to run and hit the ball hard on every point, and he’s not doubting himself, you know you’re going to have a tough time beating Rafa in Paris.”
Nadal had the opportunity 12 months ago to bag No. 10 but was foiled in the quarterfinals by Novak Djokovic — his nemesis of the past two seasons — meaning any birthday festivities that took place were held outside the City of Light for a change.
Considered by most tennis observers to be the best ever clay-court player, Nadal’s results differed completely this time a year ago.
He failed to win a European clay tournament in the buildup to the French Open for the first time since 2004, when he was still a teenager. The 14-time grand slam winner openly admitted his confidence was shattered, with his once-feared forehand swooning as a consequence.
Nadal recaptured form at the end of 2015, only to be pegged back by only his second-ever opening-round loss at a major at the Australian Open in January.
His supporters — Nadal boasts more than nine million followers on Twitter and 14 million people “like” his Facebook page — can only hope the current upswing continues at the French Open and into the foreseeable future.
Nadal claimed back-to-back titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona in April to match Argentine Guillermo Vilas’ record clay-court haul of 49, and even though he fell to Djokovic 7-5 7-6 (7-4) at the Italian Open it was the closest he came to ousting the dominant world No. 1 in their last seven matches.
When they met on a slow hard court in Indian Wells in March, Djokovic pulled away after a tight first set to win 7-6 (7-5) 6-2.
“I’ve been playing well during the whole clay-court season,” Nadal told reporters after the Rome quarterfinal tussle. “In general I’m playing well in most of the matches most of the time.”
Whether he took more positives out of the match than negatives is the “$64,000 question,” according to tennis analyst and former top-five men’s pro Brad Gilbert.
Nadal led 4-2 in the first set and held five set-points in the second before succumbing to his rival — and has now lost 15 consecutive sets against the Serbian.
“Rafa played him well in Indian Wells, played him well in Rome, but he didn’t get a win or set,” Gilbert, who has coached Andre Agassi, Andy Murray and Andy Roddick, told CNN. “Sometimes in your mind, though, if you feel you’re getting closer, then you’re thinking, ‘I could turn this around.’
“Or you think, ‘What does it ever take to close (Djokovic) out? I do think right now he’s closer than where he was a year ago when he lost to Novak at the French. I think he’s a lot closer.
“He’s hitting his backhand more aggressively, he’s trusting it. The forehand is starting to be more penetrating in the court. The one shot he needs, especially against Djokovic … I’d like to see him serve a little more aggressively.”
Djokovic, according to Gilbert, is the “prohibitive” favorite at the French Open, although he prefers to fully prognosticate after draws are made. In the French Open’s case, it is this Friday.
Nadal’s seeding of fifth means another quarterfinal with Djokovic is a possibility but most tennis fans probably don’t want that to materialize. A final, with all their accomplishments, seems more fitting.
Djokovic, a loser to Stan Wawrinka in the 2015 final, is aiming for a fourth straight major and 12th overall. If successful he will join Nadal and Roger Federer in completing his grand slam collection.
“I feel lucky and unlucky at the same time, to be playing in the same era as (Djokovic),” said Nadal, whose last major came in 2014 when he overcame Djokovic on a steamy day in Paris.
From what he has seen this clay-court season, Dewulf is leaning on “someone other than Djokovic” to triumph at the French Open. He is picking Nadal.
By his lofty standards — Djokovic’s campaign last season was one of the finest of all time, and he began 2016 in sizzling fashion — the soon-to-be 29-year-old struggled on the clay.
A title in Madrid was offset by an opening-round defeat in Monte Carlo to Jiri Vesely, and a fatigued Djokovic lost the Italian Open final to Murray, who actually holds a better winning percentage on clay since the start of 2015 than both Djokovic and Nadal.
“Nadal is in his backyard,” Dewulf said. “Novak is going to have a lot of pressure. That’s the one title he has yet to win and he knows that. At the same time Andy is playing well, you don’t know how Stan is going to play, (Kei) Nishikori is playing very well,” he continued, referring to the 2014 U.S. Open finalist from Japan.
Reassuringly for his backers, Nadal said in Rome he wished his career would last a while yet, quashing talk of retirement.
Yet if Nadal doesn’t win the French Open, his window of opportunity to collect a 15th grand slam dwindles. If, however, Nadal triumphs, his confidence would soar, perhaps leading to more majors — and this season.
“I think things will dramatically change for him if he can get a win over Djokovic,” Gilbert said. “I think that will reinvigorate him. I think that’s a big thing for him now.
“He’s got a couple more years. I give him six to eight grand slams where it has to happen (winning a major). Then he’s in the 32-year-old range and it’s not as likely. Not that many players win slams from 32 on.”
Chris Evert, who won her last two grand slam titles at the French Open in 1985-86, knows how hard it is to triumph at Roland Garros past the age of 30.
“For a guy to win the French is tough anyway because it’s three out of five sets; it’s grueling,” the American, 61, told reporters.
“There’s just more physical fitness involved because you’re just hitting more balls back. You’re on the court longer than the other grand slams.
“In an era where all the top players play, to win 10 grand slams — 10 French Opens is phenomenal, and I don’t know if that will ever be matched. I don’t see it being matched.”