PARIS — Used to be the French Open was the scene for clay-court specialists and surprise champions.
Scan the list of past winners and runners-up. There’s Gaston Gaudio and Albert Costa, Guillermo Coria and Martin Verkerk, Andres Gomez and Mariano Puerta. Not so much a “Who’s Who.” More like a “Who’s He?”
The women’s list features fewer out-of-nowhere names, yet does include those such as Iva Majoli, Anastasia Myskina and Francesca Schiavone, who all won the French Open while never making it past the quarterfinals at any other major championship.
With the year’s second Grand Slam tournament set to begin Sunday at Roland Garros, there is little thought being given to that sort of stunning outcome, thanks to Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams.
As seven-time major champion John McEnroe put it: “It’s pretty obvious who the favorite is.”
He meant, of course, Nadal, who won his record seventh French Open title last year and is 52-1 for his career at the place. Consider, too, the nearly perfect way the Spaniard has played after seven months off the tour because of a left knee injury: Since returning in February, Nadal is 36-2, reaching the finals at all eight tournaments he’s entered, winning six.
“I am enjoying every moment, and eight finals in a row is wonderful,” Nadal said. “Four, five months ago, it was impossible to think about this.”
He wore a wrap of white tape below that troublesome knee while practicing Thursday afternoon on Court Philippe Chatrier with the temperature in the 40s (less than 10 degrees Celsius) for about an hour before heavy rain fell; the forecast calls for more wet weather in the coming days.
Nadal has cut down on the amount of time he spends training on court, one concession to the recurring knee problems, which also forced him to pull out of Wimbledon in 2009, when he would have been the defending champion.
“I’m really happy for him, and impressed that he’s come back,” said McEnroe, an analyst for Tennis Channel, among other TV outlets. “It seems like he’s barely lost anything, if at all. Right now, he seems to be finally, he says, playing the best he’s been playing the whole year, which is sort of frightening for the other players.”
And yet Nadal will not be seeded No. 1 when the draw is held Friday.
That’s because the French Open decided to strictly follow the rankings, and Nadal’s time away deducted enough points that he is currently No. 4 (he’ll move up one spot to No. 3 in the seedings, because No. 2 Andy Murray, the reigning U.S. Open champion, withdrew because of a bad back).
Tournament director Gilbert Ysern explained that while he could have opted to ignore the rankings — and even contemplated doing so, because Nadal is “the best player on clay” and Roland Garros “is a bit like his garden” — there wasn’t a consensus it was the proper thing to do.
“You can understand the argument that those who are higher than him in the rankings in a certain way deserve their ranking,” Ysern said, “and to move these players back to move Nadal forward could have been considered unfair.”
Nadal, for his part, did not sound too fussed about the matter, saying, “I had a very good chance to be No. 10 (given the time off), and there are lots of chances to be worse, and I accept the situation.”
So last year’s French Open runner-up to Nadal, Novak Djokovic, will be seeded No. 1, and 17-time major champion Roger Federer will be seeded No. 2.
Djokovic handed Nadal one of his two losses of 2013, in the Monte Carlo final on clay last month, proof that Nadal is not completely invincible, even on the slow surface he dominates.
The No. 1-ranked Williams, meanwhile, has been unbeatable lately. She arrives in Paris having won a career-high 24 consecutive matches and is 36-2 with a tour-leading five titles this season. That’s part of a stretch in which she’s gone 67-3, including titles last year at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the London Olympics.
That 70-match stretch of excellence dates, probably not coincidentally, to her last match at Roland Garros, a shocking loss to 111th-ranked Virginie Razzano of France in the first round in 2012. It is her only opening loss in 50 career Grand Slam tournaments — precisely the sort of thing that seems to happen around these parts.
While there certainly are other women who realistically can harbor hopes of lifting the trophy in a little more than two weeks — defending champion Maria Sharapova is the best example — Williams appears to be playing as well as ever at the moment.
She already owns 15 Grand Slam singles titles, but the French Open is the only major tournament she’s won fewer than four times. Her lone championship in Paris came in 2002.
“Nothing is ever perfect and I learned that last year when I felt perfect,” Williams said. “So I am still in a danger zone.”