Rafael Nadal has won 12 French Open titles, but he’s never won one without capturing at least one clay court tournament in advance.
That will have to change this year if the 34-year-old Nadal is to capture his 13th Roland Garros title.
In his first tournament since late February, Nadal lost in the quarterfinals of Rome on Saturday to Diego Schwartzman, who ended up reaching the final and losing to Novak Djokovic on Monday.
Still, two-time French Open champion Jim Courier says Nadal remains the favorite going into Paris.
“I think because he hasn’t had a normal run-up of matches, because he didn’t get to play that many matches in Rome, he’s not coming in with the normal comfort level, I would imagine, that he’s used to having, where he typically comes in with at least one clay court title under his belt,” Courier said Monday on a conference call for Tennis Channel, which will broadcast the French Open beginning Sept. 27. “And he’s a guy, we know, who loves the reps.
“On paper, he’s surely the favorite. I would have Novak a very close second behind him, probably tied with Dominic Thiem given Thiem’s run in New York and his awesome clay court play in the past four, five years.”
Thiem was the runner-up to Nadal in the 2018 and ‘19 Roland Garros finals, and then finally broke through to win his maiden Grand Slam title last week in New York, beating Sascha Zverev in the U.S. Open final.
Much, of course, will depend on the draw, which comes out Thursday.
Thiem will be the No. 3 seed and will wind up in either Nadal or Djokovic’s half, meaning one of them would meet him in the semifinals and would then potentially have to turn around and face the other in the final if they survive Thiem in the semi.
“The draw matters,” Courier said. “If Thiem is on Rafa’s side versus on Novak’s side that matters maybe a little bit because having to go through two of them is going to be tougher than just one.”
As for Thiem’s chances to win the French and U.S. Open back-to-back, Courier said “it would be very challenging because of the lack of time to change surfaces and to get used to the new landscape but players have done that from the French Open to Wimbledon historically and you just get used to it.”
He added: “Dominic should be comfortable after the U.S. Open. He had a great performance. He didn’t play necessarily his best tennis in the final, but he played well enough to win and that’s all that matters. He did some play high-level stuff coming into the final. That should give him a boost that he was able to manage his way through a very tense final and overcome all the hurdles that he did to lift that trophy. He’s now forever a major champion which is awesome.”
Nadal will be seeking his 20th Grand Slam title in Paris, which would tie Roger Federer for first all-time among the men, while Djokovic is seeking No. 18.
Courier said the conditions will also play a factor. The players will be in a bubble and must stay at one of two tournament hotels, and there will be 5,000 fans allowed daily, as opposed to no fans at the U.S. Open.
“The wind has been taken a little bit out of it [because of the roof over Centre Court] and Novak certainly would like to see not a lot of wind in there,” Courier said. “He typically doesn’t like it. Last year it was incredibly breezy in the semifinals and he seemed to be the most disturbed by it of the four players.
“Of course the conditions are going to be tough in terms of trying to be in a bubble. It’s going to be different and we’re just lucky that we get to watch it.”