Though he was the reigning champion at the U.S. Open, he decided not to play in New York this year and remained at home in Majorca, Spain, where he trained on clay at his eponymous academy. He believed that making the trip to the United States would risk wearing him down for the abbreviated clay-court season, with the French Open coming just two weeks after the men’s U.S. Open final.
So far, so smart, but he is on new ground here. He has never won the French Open without winning a clay-court tournament in the lead-up and no one has ever won a French Open in October. His forehand is not bouncing as high in the cool conditions. His serve is not traveling as quickly: down, on average, four miles per hour from 2019.
But despite all of the above, he has yet to drop a set in the tournament.
After fighting through a 14-minute opening game on Friday to hold serve, he worked his way through the grinding first set, full of double-digit rallies and all-court hustle.
He made adjustments after the loss to Schwartzman in Rome: moving in closer on first-serve returns and much closer on second-serve returns. It paid off with break after break, and though Schwartzman tried drop shots, they were not as consistently successful.
The match tightened in the third set, however, as Nadal failed twice to hold serve after going up a break. At 5-5, he held serve after saving three break points, saving the last of those by serving and volleying for the first time in the match.
Greatness is in the details, and Nadal is, contrary to popular image, a great tactician as well as a great athlete, ball striker and competitor.
He went on to win the third-set tiebreaker, too, and is now just one victory away from ruling again at Roland Garros.
It has been a reign no like other.