The King of Clay returns to his multi-tournament castle this week in Monte Carlo. Rafael Nadal and his fans surely hope for another immensely productive season with a fat stack of trophies on European terre battue. Health is the obvious and foremost concern for Nadal, whose knees and joints regularly take a pounding on hardcourts, the predominant surface in contemporary professional tennis. If his body is fine, his tennis should be fine, and if his clay tennis is fine, it will take something extraordinary from every male tennis player not named Novak Djokovic to beat him at Roland Garros.
The road to a 12th Roland Garros championship begins this week in Monte Carlo for Nadal. As this journey begins, what should we say about the relationship between the three Masters 1000 clay events and the French Open?
This year, as much as ever — maybe even more so — it seems less important for Rafa to have to make a statement heading into Paris. Oh, he certainly WANTS to make that statement. He certainly CAN make that statement. Yet, much like Djokovic in these events preceding Roland Garros, just how much does Rafa absolutely NEED to dominate right now?
He wants to, but I don’t think he has to.
This is a simpler thought exercise than one might first assume.
Nadal has suffered losses to Djokovic in the lead-up events before Roland Garros. They didn’t matter.
Nadal has suffered losses — plural — to Dominic Thiem in the lead-up events before Roland Garros. They didn’t matter.
Nadal hasn’t yet lost to Alexander Zverev, but he came very close to doing so in Rome and was saved — in part — by timely rain. That close shave had no bearing on Nadal’s performance weeks later in France.
The point is very plain: Nadal could either lose to or play poorly against any of the three top challengers to his Parisian throne and have no real concern about Roland Garros, as long as his body is in good shape. If Djokovic was in 2015 or 2016 form, this might be a different conversation, but of course, Djokovic isn’t close to that level of form.
If the three Masters 1000 events before Roland Garros contain substantial importance for Rafa, that importance exists in relationship to the chase for year-end No. 1, not for the French Open itself. If Rafa wants that prize badly enough, he can be my guest and go for it. Winning titles is good, and I don’t think winning titles just before turning 33 years old should be discouraged.
I am merely saying that if Nadal, by chance, doesn’t happen to crush this Masters clay schedule, I wouldn’t be too concerned heading into Paris as long as Rafa is healthy.