Rafael Nadal targets 13th French Open title as Novak Djokovic says his rival is ‘beatable’ on clay

The tennis world waited seven months for the return of grand slams. Now, like buses, two have come along at once.

Having been moved from its usual May start date, the French Open gets underway on Sunday, two weeks after the conclusion of the US Open and a week after the Italian Open, the traditional warmup event to Roland-Garros.

While fans have been able to binge on near-wall-to-wall action in September, for players the situation has been rather more difficult to navigate as they have been forced to choose their movements wisely.

Defending French Open champion Ashleigh Barty opted to skip both majors amid coronavirus concerns. Other players, such as 12-time French Open winner Rafael Nadal and 2018 champion Simona Halep, decided to pass on a trip to New York and instead focus on clay court preparation, whereas the likes of Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic chose to play both majors.

Djokovic and Nadal are the top seeds and favorites in the men’s draw, ahead of newly crowned US Open champion Dominic Thiem, a two-time finalist in Paris.

Picking an outright favorite between the two top seeds is a near-impossible task.

Excluding when he was defaulted at the US Open for striking a line judge with a ball, world No. 1 Djokovic is unbeaten this year and this week claimed his fifth Italian Open victory.

Nadal, on the other hand, has an unparalleled record at Roland-Garros having won 12 titles in the past 15 years. Victory in Paris would see him equal Roger Federer’s men’s record of 20 grand slam singles titles.

“A lot of people will agree, he’s the number one favourite and the record that he has there, the history of his results, you just can’t put anyone in front of him,” said Djokovic, who surpassed Nadal’s Masters 1000 record with his recent victory in Rome.

“But definitely Diego (Schwartzman, who beat Nadal at the Italian Open) showed that Nadal is beatable on clay … Even though he is the number one favorite, there are players that can win against him there.”

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Halep the favorite as Serena continues pursuit of 24

Having won the Italian Open earlier this week, Halep is hotly tipped to win her second French Open this year, especially given the absence of Barty and US Open champion Naomi Osaka, who has withdrawn through injury.

The Romanian is on a 14-match winning streak, stretching back to February, but has dismissed feeling any extra pressure because of her recent record.

“The pressure, I’m used to it,” she told the WTA Insider Podcast.

“I’ve been No. 1 and playing a grand slam (before), so that’s more (pressure) than now.

“I’m not going to think about that. If people think that I am a favorite, well, I’m not thinking about that because every match is a battle and everyone wants to get it so badly.”

Rome finalist Karolina Plsikova, former world No. 1 Elina Svitolina and Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin are all behind Halep in the seedings, while Serena Williams continues to chase a record-equalling 24th grand slam title.

Williams, who turns 39 on Saturday, has fallen in four finals since her last grand slam victory in 2017. Her three titles in Paris — the last coming in 2015 — are more than any other player in the women’s draw.

Adapting to clay

Part of the challenge players face with a crowded schedule is managing the transition between hard and clay courts in a short space of time.

World No. 20 Milos Raonic told CNN earlier this year that he hopes the quick changeover won’t cause an uptick in injuries, while former world No. 1 Pliskova was forced to withdraw from this week’s Italian Open final with a hamstring injury.

“I think it’s from playing so many tough matches in a row,” the former world No. 1 said after her withdrawal in Rome.

“Even if they weren’t all three-set matches, they were still on clay, which is quite a fast switch from hard courts.

“The sliding and running in the last two matches, I began to feel it … and it grew with every day.”

Fans on-site

While fans were excluded from the US Open, French Open organizers initially planned to have 5,000 people in attendance each day.

However, that number has now been reduced to 1,000, French prime minister Jean Castex announced on French TV program “Vous avez la parole” on Thursday, given the current coronavirus situation in Paris.

This year also sees the addition of a new retractable roof on Philippe-Chatrier court, meaning play can go on into night if necessary.

Face masks, social distancing and physical partitions in the stadium have all been enforced and those on-site for a long period will be subject to coronavirus tests at various intervals throughout the tournament.

Players have been tested upon arrival in Paris and will be approved to play if they return negative tests then and again 72 hours later.

They will also be tested every five days, as long as they remain in contention, and must stay in one of two hotels arranged by tournament organizers.