The lobby of the Crown Towers in Melbourne the morning after Rafael Nadal had been forced to retire from the Australian Open in January, was not as busy as it can be.
A few stragglers with iPhones at the ready watched for anyone they thought they might recognise from the tennis world but easily identifiable faces were few and far between. Then, out of the corner of their eye, they could see Nadal, making his way sheepishly towards the rear exit.
He stopped, posed for their pictures forcing a smile, and then we shook hands and passed pleasantries
He was on his way for an MRI scan of his damaged thigh and his personal doctor Angel Ruiz Cotorro told the Spanish news outlet El Confidencial: “The physical condition Rafa had at 20 is different to the one he has at 31 after a life dedicated to competition. This is logical in professional sports.”
The gist of that message appeared to be – don’t expect too much from Rafa, with his creaking bones and dodgy joints.
Five months later and on the cusp of his 32nd birthday, Nadal is such an overwhelming favourite to become the champion of the French Open for the 11th time these next two weeks, the tennis mystics are gazing into their crystal balls hoping the image emerges of someone who might give the Spaniard a genuine test.
Nadal has defied logic before and quite naturally, nobody would be the least surprised if he did not destroy it once more. When he was pictured on May 20, clasping the Italian Open trophy [he has only won that eight times] to his chest at the Foro Italico, one could easily imagine a similar scene in Paris a few days’ hence.
The trouble for the rest, as it ever was in a Grand Slam on clay, is to find whether they have it in them to win three sets in one day [possibly two if it rains because there’s no roof on centre court there yet] against Nadal on the uncompromising clay of Roland Garros. The odd set, perhaps, two at a push, but three?
Only two people in the world have succeeded with that prescription, Robin Soderling in 2009 and Novak Djokovic three years ago. He has more or less obliterated the rest and, given his form in the lead-up to this year’s tournament, landing in his half of the draw at this year’s event will be not a happy peradventure.
The draw is also not as strong as it has been in year’s past. There will be no Andy Murray, for instance and, sadly, the former world No.1 and three time Grand Slam champion, is struggling even to be able to fulfil his grass court ambitions this year. The hip injury that has dogged him for a year, is still a way off being completely healed.
Since his success in the Australian Open for grand slam title No.20, Roger Federer has taken a sabbatical and will not return until the grass.
Federer has held the No.1 ranking the weeks Nadal hasn’t won a title, the Spaniard has re-assumed the position in the week he did. As such, entering the French, Nadal is atop the tree.
Djokovic – apparently rejuvenated and back in the embrace of members of the backroom team that were the foundation of his period of sustained success in the early 2010s – pushed Nadal in the semifinal in Rome but the emerging star of the men’s game is 20-year-old Alexander Zverev of Germany.
Zverev has won 30 of his 38 matches on tour this year, collected the clay court title in Madrid and if you might still think his frame needs a touch filling out – his physical trainer Jez Green was once part of Murray’s coterie – there is nothing wrong with his athleticism, his tennis brain and his unwavering commitment to improve. All he needs now is to go deep into a slam, and this could be his opportunity.
Elsewhere, you might struggle to find a potential contender. Is there someone out there, for instance, who can enjoy a journey in Paris, the like of which Britain’s Kyle Edmund relished in Melbourne, a breathless whistle-stop ride through the field in absolutely sweltering temperatures, to reach his first slam semi-final [better than Zverev has done thus far] where only Croat Marin Cilic’s greater nerve was the difference?
In the women’s competition, Serena Williams had to forgo a place in the quire at St George’s Chapel at Windsor for the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, for one where she has adopted what amounts to the status of a royal in her chosen sport.
Queen Serena has a rather fine ring to it but it would be pushing the bounds of the fantastic even more were she to be able to succeed on the clay, having missed most of the season after the birth of her first child, Alexis Olympia in September last year.
To be fair to Serena, having danced the night away on Saturday, the 36-year-old was on centre court in Paris the following afternoon, shaping her game under the watchful eye of her French coach, Patrick Mouratoglou. She didn’t appear to be suffering from a hangover. Handling motherhood in these late throes of her career is yet another compelling challenge.
A victory in Paris is surely expecting too much, whereas the chances of Romania’s Simona Halep collecting her first major title, should only have been enhanced by having the experience of reaching the final in Paris twice, though she accepts she didn’t do herself justice against either Maria Sharapova three years ago, or Julia Ostapenko, the surprise champion from Latvia, last spring.
“Maybe there are five or six players who are a little stronger on clay, but I feel the same wherever I play,” Halep said after her loss to Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina – another with a real chance – in the final in Rome a week before the French begins.
“I believe anyone in the field has a chance to win, even in a grand slam.”
Which is either indicative of a women’s game with a great strength in depth or that there is a little too much-of-a-much-ness about it all. The next two weeks will determine which way around it is.