“Close your ears, Rafa,” said Jean Gachassin, the diminutive president of the French Tennis Federation, as he stood next to Rafael Nadal on Friday.
Gachassin, not exactly the bashful type, continued, “I dream of giving the Coupe des Mousquetaires to a French player on Sunday, June 9, on the 30th anniversary of Yannick Noah’s victory.”
Dream does seem the right choice of word considering that no Frenchman has managed to engineer an encore of Noah’s indelible, dreadlocked run to the French Open trophy in 1983 and that no Frenchman has even reached the final here since Henri Leconte in 1988.
Yet what was striking on Friday, the day of the draw, was not the impolitic presidential line but how routine the scene seemed. French tennis officials have been jokingly (or not) telling Nadal to stop dominating ever since he put a chokehold on the clay-court game in 2005. But wasn’t this supposed to be the year when he would finally arrive at Roland Garros as an underdog? Dream on.
Despite a seven-month break that ended in February, despite the strength of his rivals and the chase pack, and despite the fact that he is seeded third and ranked fourth as he goes for a recordtying eighth singles title, Nadal is, as usual, the focal point of the French Open.
Since his return to the circuit, Nadal has played eight tournaments and reached the final in all of them, winning six, including his one foray onto hard courts at Indian Wells. His level of play has not yet been as brutally consistent as in his finest years, but the results have been every bit as good. He may not be winning pretty every week but he is hardly winning ugly. He now has speedclimbed back into the top four in the world, and the No 3 seed here after the withdrawal of Andy Murray because of a back injury.
“I never imagined I could make it back to Roland Garros with that ranking,” Nadal said. “The ranking is what it is. The important thing is to become competitive and to manage to win tournaments, and what I did is huge.”
Chilly, soggy weather means slow conditions. That might normally make for a difficult first week for Roger Federer. But the second seed got another fine one when Nadal ended up in the topseeded Novak Djokovic’s half of the draw. Federer, though, did draw the toughest of the qualifiers in his first round: the rising Spaniard Pablo Carreño-Busta.