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Rafael Nadal isn’t clear favorite as French Open ball, conditions change

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If it weren’t for a U.S. Open disqualification, Novak Djokovic likely would be on the cusp of a “COVID Grand Slam,” with the opportunity to sweep all three majors of 2020. (Wimbledon was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic).

No longer is Rafael Nadal being hailed as a prohibitive favorite at the rescheduled French Open, which begins Sunday on the red clay of Roland Garros in Paris.

Even the lefty from Spain, who has won the French Open 12 times, doesn’t sound confident — because of the chillier conditions of late September in Paris and a controversial new ball that will debut.

Nadal has been so dominant in the tournament that the French Tennis Federation could one day rename the grounds Roland Rafa Garros. But Nadal won those previous French titles in the heat of late May or early July.

“The situation is special,’’ Nadal said at Friday’s Media Day. “The conditions are the most difficult for me ever for so many different facts. The ball is completely different — super slow and heavy. Slow conditions, the preparations have been less than usual. But I’m here to fight. I’ll try to find the positive vibes.”

Djokovic has bounced back with brilliance after a stunning disqualification at the U.S. Open on Sept. 7 for flicking a ball that hit a lineswoman. Djokovic flew to Europe to win the clay-court tune-up Italian Open, while Nadal, who skipped the U.S. Open, was eliminated early in Rome — his only tournament leading into the French Open.

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Tennis
Rafael NadalGetty Images

NBC analyst Mary Carillo said she believes Djokovic is “well positioned’’ to dethrone Nadal. Djokovic, who won the

pre-pandemic Australian Open, is 31-1 in 2020 — his lone loss being the controversial disqualification.

Djokovic, who can’t meet Nadal until the finals, said there are players in the draw capable of upending the Spaniard. The Serbian clearly is referring to 2020 U.S. Open champion Dominic Thiem, who could face Nadal in the semifinals. Still, Djokovic said that on paper he wouldn’t put himself as the favorite.

“It’s Nadal,” Djokovic said. “You just can’t put anybody in front of him.”

Nadal has 19 Grand Slam titles — one away from tying Roger Federer for the most all time. Federer took 2020 off to have two clean-up surgeries on his right knee.

Nadal is notorious for downplaying his chances, but he sounded genuinely concerned with a slow new ball that, in many experts’ eyes, favors Djokovic. The clay courts of Paris historically have played just right for Nadal’s booming groundstrokes.

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Nadal said the French Open officials should reconsider the ball next year. While the U.S. Open was ongoing, he practiced with the new ball in his home island of Mallorca.



“It’s not a good ball to play on the clay court,’’ Nadal said. “It’s super heavy — dangerous for the elbow and shoulder.”

The men’s draw appears to

be a three-horse race between Djokovic, Nadal and U.S. Open champ Dominic Thiem, and it feels the same way with the women’s draw, though Simona Halep is classified as favorite.

On a 14-match winning streak, Halep is fresh after skipping Flushing and winning in Rome. The Romanian won the French Open in 2018. Victoria Azarenka and clay-court whiz Garbine Muguruza are the next two top contenders.

“It’s nice being back in Paris but it’s a little bit too cold,’’ Halep said. “ I feel confident, but you never know. I’m honored for people to think I’m the favorite.’’

And Serena Williams, who has won the French Open three times, can’t be discounted, despite turning 39 on Saturday.

“I honestly never thought I would be playing at my age,” Williams said. “I don’t quite look 39. But yeah, I don’t know when it’s going to stop for me. I just have fun. When I feel it’s over, it’s over. But I could have guaranteed and pretty much bet my life that I would not have been playing at 39. This is why I don’t bet.”

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Williams hasn’t had a clay court tuneup. The legend, who is vying for a record-tying 24th Grand Slam victory, hit instead at the clay-court academy run by her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, in the south of France.

Williams could face Azarenka — who beat her at the U.S. Open semifinals — in the fourth round. She also could face her sister, Venus, in Round 4.

Meanwhile, 16-year-old American Coco Gauff got a bad draw, facing tough Brit Johanna Konta in the first round. Gauff lost in Round 1 at the U.S. Open to Anastasija Sevastova.

The French Open, which will have fans in the stands (unlike the U.S. Open, which went fan-less), has reduced the maximum amount allowed in the past two weeks — from 11,000 to 5,000 to 1,000.

“The only thing we have to say is thanks to the U.S. Open, Rome, Roland Garros [for] trying hard to organize events even though they know they’re going to lose money,’’ Nadal said.

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