This story first appeared in the May/June issue of New York Tennis Magazine.
Each year, the French Open brings the ATP and WTA Tours to Paris for an exciting fortnight of tennis on the famed red-clay courts of Roland Garros as the tennis season reaches its second Grand Slam event of the year.
There is perhaps no player in the history of the sport that enjoys seeing the calendar turn to late May than Rafael Nadal. His 10 titles at Roland Garros are the most by any player at a single Grand Slam, ahead of Roger Federer’s eight titles at Wimbledon. The appropriately-nicknamed “King of Clay” will arrive in Paris in pursuit of his 11th French Open title, and seems to be hitting his stride in 2018 just in time.
Nadal is the world’s current number-one ranked player, holding that edge over Federer, but has some points to protect in the clay court tournaments that precede the French Open. But while the number one ranking is extremely important to Nadal and his team, his primary focus is on Roland Garros.
“For us, right now, Rafa’s ranking is secondary,” said Nadal’s coach Carlos Moya. “If he does well in Rome, I can see him staying at number one. In any case, the number one spot is a consequence of the day-to-day, of training and playing well, of being healthy, and of resting. We give much more importance to that. We know that if all of this is done well, the number one ranking is a consequence of that. We will go week-to-week because we know that Paris is on the horizon.”
That one-step-at-a-time approach is key for the 31-year-old Nadal, who has been marred by injuries over the last few years. He has made the voyage back to the top of the world rankings, but the injury bug still plays a part for the Spaniard.
His resume of injuries is a long one that includes time missed due to his back, knees, wrist, hip and feet, and can be traced back to a congenital foot issue he suffered back in 2005.
“The specialist we went to told us that Rafael’s career was pretty much finished,” said Nadal’s uncle and longtime coach, Toni Nadal. “In 2005, Rafael had to constantly live in pain. From that time on, we couldn’t finish training sessions often. A lot of times, he would have to take a painkiller because the pain would get worse as the games went on. Because of some insoles that he started using, which solved his foot problem, he started having problems in his knee, back and other parts of his body.”
His history with injuries has elicited some of his contemporaries, namely Andy Murray, seeking advice from him on how to cope with sustained time off.
“I saw him in Melbourne and I spoke with him on the phone two weeks ago. He asked me about things, I don’t want to tell you about the things that we talked about because it will not be fair to him, and I would not feel comfortable with it,” said Murray. “But yes, I tell him the things that I think worked for me. I have been in that situation. I know how tough and frustrating it is when you work every day and you don’t see the light of how to improve.”
As of mid-April, Nadal has played just three tournaments in 2018, one of which was Spain’s Davis Cup tie against Germany. After he reached the Australian Open quarterfinals, Nadal was forced to retire against Marin Cilic and then went two-plus months without competitive action due to a hip injury.
He returned just in time to deliver two key victories for Spain, including a dominant 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 three-set performance over rising star Alexander Zverev.
“I feel prepared to compete tennis-wise, physically,” Nadal said afterwards. “It’s the first event I completed this year. The win against Zverev is important for me as much as my team. I’m happy with the level at which I played.”
Nadal played in his first ATP tournament since late January in Melbourne at the Rolex Monte Carlo Masters in Monaco, an event which he has dominated throughout his career.
Despite his long absence from competitive play, Nadal ran through the Monte Carlo field, dropping just 21 games throughout his five matches at the tournament, and dispatching the likes of Dominic Thiem and Grigor Dimitrov before beating Kei Nishikori 6-3, 6-2 in the final.
“I want to thank all my team and my family. We had some tough moments during the last five months after a couple of injuries in a row,” Nadal said. “It’s great to have a group of great people behind me. I can say thank you very much always for being there and supporting me when I really need it. It’s always special for me to be back here in Monte Carlo, having this trophy. It’s one of the most important events of the year for me.”
To look that sharp and focused despite having missed months of action is just another demonstration of the greatness Nadal possesses, and his win in Monaco maintained his spot atop the ATP Men’s Singles Rankings. Nadal followed up his run in Monte Carlo with titles in Barcelona and Rome, demonstrating his relentless dominance on clay.
He understands that this stretch of the year, the clay court season, is his time. Much like his longtime rival, Roger Federer, the two know how to manipulate their schedules to maximize their performances at the Grand Slams, especially at this point in their careers. Nadal used the last couple of months to get his body completely ready to compete, and it was evident in his run through the Men’s Singles Draw at Monte Carlo.
There is no doubt that Nadal is a clear-cut favorite at the French Open this year. While Novak Djokovic, one of only two players to ever beat Nadal at Roland Garros, is back and healthy and there is a good crop of young players eager to break through on the red-clay courts, it’s hard to imagine Nadal faltering.
The all-time great knows that his career is most likely closer to the end than it is the beginning, so he is just trying to enjoy himself match to match, an approach that helps keep him focused on the task at hand.
“My true feeling is that these kinds of things are not going to happen forever, so I just try to enjoy and to play with full passion, full energy and concentration, and full love for the sport for as long as I can,” Nadal said. “I know the day to say goodbye is closer than 10 years ago. It’s something that I am not worried about, but it’s a real thing. So I’m just enjoying every day and trying to play with the best attitude and to keep being happy playing tennis.”
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at email@example.com