By Jane Voigt
If you listen carefully to Rafael Nadal you’ll know what keeps him on track to win his 10th, and unprecedented, Roland Garros. His health. His good health.
“I’m in the quarterfinals and healthy and playing well,” Nadal told the press, after his routing of Roberto Bautista Agut (No. 17), 6-1, 6-2, 6-2. “Those are only important things for me.”
No matter what reporters asked Nadal today, he meandered back to his good health. And, he seemed grateful for it. Because like every touring pro knows, and as Nadal knows clearly, without his health he’s home fishing. Anywhere but where he would like to be … on court competing.
“Very important for me now to play without injuries,” he began. “We were able to practice as much as we wanted, which [has] made a big difference.”
There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that Nadal is the player to beat in Paris. He has been that man since he first won in 2005, at his first appearance. Between that year and today, he failed to hoist the trophy 3 times: 2009, 2015, and 2016.
In 2009, Robin Soderling eliminated Nadal in the fourth round. It was the first time Nadal had lost on his beloved red clay in Paris. Many thought that problems with his parents’ separation interfered with his ability to concentrate, which was probably true. However, Soderling had a game that Nadal couldn’t defend against, which was his biggest strategic advantage then.
In 2015, he lost in the quarterfinals to Novak Djokovic. He became the second man to ever beat the Spaniard in Paris. It was a straight-set upset, 7-5, 6-3, 6-1.
“In 2015, there was one player playing better than me,” Nadal said, knowingly and without mentioning Djokovic’s name.
Last year, he withdrew in the third round because his left wrist was injured.
“Last year for me was an opportunity lost,” he said. “I felt that I was playing well.”
This year, which is of utmost importance to Nadal, he has stunned anyone across the net. He hasn’t dropped a set. His spin is vicious. His bending down-the-line forehand is on target. His deft touch at the net has been brilliant, especially for a man they’ve nicknamed El Toro.
“Sometimes you don’t play so well,” Nadal began. “But thing is you accept all the situations and fight for the ball and try to be through to the next round.”
This is the last year Nadal’s uncle and coach, Toni, will travel with his nephew. Nadal’s choice of coach to take over the reins held tightly by Uncle Toni is Carlos Moya. The two have known each other all their lives.
“Carlos is positive for me. He’s a very good friend,” Nadal said. “He has confidence with me and me with him. He knows very well my uncle. The spirit of the team has been positive from the beginning. We change a couple things in the practice, but Carlos is very important help for me.”
Nadal’s parents reconciled, after their separation in 2009. His wrist took 7 months to rehab. Yet, as his scoreline shows over the last eight days, it’s in top-notch shape.
- First round: Defeated Benoit Paire 6-1, 6-4, 6-1
- Second round: Defeated Robin Haase 6-1, 6-4, 6-3
- Third round: Defeated Nikoloz Basilashvili, 6-0, 6-1, 6-0
- Fourth round: Defeated Roberto Bautista Agut, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2
“This year I’m excited to be back here,” Nadal began. “It’s a tournament that is most important event of the year.”
Nadal authenticity and candor endear him to millions. His simplicity, as well, shows just how narrowly he views his matches.
“Everybody knows what you have to do to be competitive,” he began. “[You] have to work hard. I’m happy the way we’re working. I’m playing with the right tactics. My health is what’s right. The important thing to be successful is the work. If you’re not able to work, you’ll still have chances but less, for sure. For a time in my career, my physical issues have not let me work.”
Nadal advanced to the quarterfinals today for the 11th time, which equals that of only one other player — Roger Federer.
“Now every match will be different,” Nadal said, as if ready for battle. “Have to be ready for the five [setter]. [I have to] play my best to keep having my chances.” Nadal is 99-2 in five-set matches on clay.
Nadal turned 31 yesterday, but lives principles learned at a young age. He loved celebrating in Paris with his family and friends around the tournament site.
“All the people at Roland Garros were very nice. It’s always beautiful to be with them. Then I had some lunch with family in the hotel. Was great, no? Was relaxed and a moment to see football.”
Nadal will face Pablo Carreno-Busta in the quarterfinals Tuesday. The 25-year-old defeated No. 5 seed, Milos Raonic, today, in a four-hour tussle that went the distance and 8-6 in the fifth. The win was Carreno-Busta’s first against a top-ten player. He also defeated an in-form Grigor Dimitrov (No. 11) in straight sets on Friday.
Carreno-Busta will bring almost the same circumstance to the match as did Jelena Ostapenko bring in her victory today against Samantha Stosur. Neither Ostapenko or Carreno-Busta has ever been to a quarterfinal of a major. Both careers are rapidly rising. They have nothing to lose and should swing out, if their nerves don’t cramp their styles.
Ostapenko will face Caroline Wozniacki (No. 11). The Latvian teen has a clean 3-0 record on the Dane, two of them on clay in 2017. Wozniacki, as well, is probably nagged by never having won a Grand Slam even though she ended at number one for two consecutive years.
This is not the same situation for Carreno-Busta.
“Nadal is at his very best,” Roberto Bautista-Agut told the press today. “He plays every point with great intensity and yields nothing. You try to take a few risks and then, of course, you make more mistakes than usual.”
The match will be the Carreno-Busta’s initiation into the real meaning of Roland Garros. A Roland Garros where The King of Clay has regained his form and health, and is not likely to relinquish the chance for a crack at his tenth title without a big fight. That’s just how he rolls on the red clay.