Rafael Nadal’s white T-shirt carried specks of rust-colored clay and his white socks were smothered with the stuff during a practice session on Court Philippe Chatrier in the steamy early afternoon Thursday.
As Nadal slid across his favorite surface, in his favorite stadium, at his favorite tournament, a picture of a shiny French Open trophy rotated on a video board overhead. Under the close watch of his coach, and fully focused on the work at hand, Nadal never stole a glance at that photo. No need: He ought to have every feature of that prize memorized by now.
Nadal is bidding for a record seventh French Open championship while World No 1 Novak Djokovic is be trying to become the first man in 43 years to hold all four Grand Slam titles concurrently.
By winning their two recent matchups in clay-court finals, Nadal stopped a seven-match losing streak against the Serb – including in the past three Grand Slam title matches – and reasserted himself on the surface he’s dominated since 2005.
On a roll
Nadal might very well be the best in history on clay: Since 2005, he is 220-9, a 0.961 winning percentage. That includes not only his six championships at Roland Garros but also six titles at the Italian Open, seven at the Barcelona Open, and eight at the Monte Carlo Masters.
“Hopefully I will keep playing like this,” Nadal said after his 7-5, 6-3 victory over Djokovic in Rome. “When you lose, you play with doubts.”
In Thursday’s training session, he carved up the clay, leaving skid marks when sliding into shots. He spent a lot of time working on his serve, which once was a liability but increasingly is becoming an asset.
Djokovic too can carve a piece a history of his own. If he can manage to win seven matches in Paris, he’ll be the first man since Rod Laver pulled off a true Grand Slam in 1969 (the Australian did it in 1962, too) to take four major championships in a row.