(Reuters) - Every year but three since 2005 the French Open has followed a familiar and straightforward script.
Twelve times the story has ended with Nadal clamping his teeth around La Coupe des Mousquetaires and in 2008, 2010 and 2017 he romped through the fortnight without the loss of a set.
His win loss record stands at 93-2 and he has earned $22 million at the French Open alone.
That was in normal times though and this year’s tournament promises to be anything but normal because of the coronavirus pandemic that has wreaked havoc with the tennis calendar.
The claycourt Slam was postponed from its original slot at the end of May and will be staged with only 1,000 fans permitted each day as COVID-19 cases rise across France.
Nadal’s routines will be rudely interrupted with players staying in designated hotels in a bio-secure bubble.
Most importantly, however, the cool days of late September, with damp courts expected, will level the playing field and for the first time, other than when Nadal has been injured, he looks vulnerable on his beloved clay.
He has played only one tournament since March, losing in the quarter-finals of the Rome Masters to Diego Schwartzmann -- his first loss to the Argentine in 10 meetings.
It would be dangerous to read too much into that as Nadal generally peaks at Roland Garros. But this time he will not benefit from the warm air and slippery, bouncy surface that usually makes his spinny shots all-but-impossible to handle.
“The one person I don’ think the switch (in date) will help is Rafa although it favours him playing in Paris of course,” former champion Mats Wilander, who will be Eurosport’s analyst during the tournament, told Reuters.
“Someone like Rafa will go to bed every night in Paris thinking please be 30 degrees, blue skies and even windy tomorrow and I’ll love it. Now he’ll wake up and it’s 12 degrees and he has to play someone who hits the ball heavy.”
Of course Nadal has a massive incentive, if ever he needed one. One more French Open and he will reach 20 Grand Slam titles and equal the record of Roger Federer who is absent injured.
Wilander, however, believes that world number one Novak Djokovic is favourite to claim a second French Open crown.
Djokovic, who blew a chance to grab an 18th Grand Slam when he was defaulted at the U.S. Open, has been invincible this year and warmed up with the Rome title.
“He will think that in September/October that claycourt is going to be perfect for me,” Wilander said. “I can’t imagine anyone being more prepared for a slowish claycourt than Novak.
“This is a massive opportunity for him that I don’t think he will let it slip by.”
Djokovic was also placed in an easier half of the draw. Second seed Nadal is on course to play newly-crowned U.S. Open champion Dominic Thiem in the semi-finals, the Austrian he beat to win the title in 2018 and 2019.
Fuelled with self-belief after his breakthrough, Thiem will believe he can win the title on his best surface, although danger awaits in round one in the shape of Marin Cilic.
“He is going to be unbelievably dangerous and I would put him up there alongside Rafa and Novak,” Wilander said.
Young guns like Stefanos Tsitsipas, U.S. Open runner-up Alexander Zverev and Canadian Denis Shapovalov will scent an opening, as will former champion Stan Wawrinka whose first-round clash versus three-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray will kick off the men’s tournament in style.
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis
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