PARIS — Through the years, Rafael Nadal grew accustomed to a couple of givens at the French Open: He would arrive as the defending champion, and Roger Federer would be somewhere in the draw, often awaiting a showdown in the final.
This time around, neither is the case.
Federer withdrew a few days before Sunday’s start of the clay-court Grand Slam tournament, ending his record run of 65 consecutive major appearances.
“For the fans, for the tournament, for the world (of) tennis, in general, is … very negative news, no?” Nadal said.
Nadal won the title at Roland Garros every year from 2005-08 and from 2010-14 – a record nine in all, beating Federer in four of those finals – but returns to town trying to earn back the trophy after relinquishing it in 2015.
He is seeded fourth.
“It’s a tournament that I know I can play well,” said Nadal, who lost in the quarterfinals to Novak Djokovic a year ago. “If I am playing well, I know I can do good things.”
Nadal, who owns 14 major championships in all, could face No. 1 Djokovic in about two weeks in the semifinals – on what would be the Spaniard’s 30th birthday.
Asked about that milestone, Nadal waxed philosophical.
“You know, time never stops. Nobody stops the time,” he said. “That’s not a good thing, but at the same time, I am happy with my life. I enjoyed all these years on the tour, and I hope to keep enjoying the next couple of years.”
After dealing with health problems and a crisis of confidence last season, Nadal has been playing better on his favorite red clay of late.
He is 19-4 on the surface this season, including titles at Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Not bad, but not up to his old standards. In his past two tournaments, Nadal lost in the Madrid semifinals to Andy Murray, and the Rome quarterfinals to Djokovic.
“A lot of tournaments in a row playing well,” said Nadal, who faces Sam Groth in the first round in Paris. “I need to just keep going.”
Other things to know about the French Open, which begins Sunday:
SERENA’S `DROUGHT’: Much was made of Serena Williams’ title in Rome last weekend being her first trophy in nine months. She does not consider that gap a big deal. “I guess when you win all the time, if you go a couple of tournaments and don’t win them, it’s like you’re in a drought,” Williams said. She is the defending champion and seeded No. 1 at Roland Garros, and another title would be her 22nd at a Grand Slam tournament, equaling Steffi Graf for the most in the Open era, which started in 1968.
SECURITY STEPPED UP: From patdowns at entrance gates to a 25 percent rise in the number of security agents, there is an obvious increase in protective measures at the tournament, about six months after terrorist attacks around the French capital. “I notice more security pretty much everywhere,” No. 2-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska said.
OLYMPIC PUSH: A Grand Slam tournament is a Grand Slam tournament, so there is plenty at stake as always over the next 15 days, but there is an added incentive for some players: the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. The ATP and WTA rankings of June 6 – the day after the men’s final in Paris – will be the basis for Summer Games qualification.
DOPING TALK: Two recent events put the topic of performance-enhancing drugs on the table in tennis. Maria Sharapova’s positive test for meldonium and provisional suspension are keeping her out of the field at a tournament she won in 2012 and 2014. And Nadal filed a defamation lawsuit in Paris last month against France’s former minister for health and sport, Roselyne Bachelot, after she said on a television show the player’s seven-month injury absence in 2012 probably was due to a positive drug test.
CHEATING: A report about whether tennis was doing enough to investigate possible corruption stirred things up at the start of the Australian Open in January. While the chatter has mostly subsided, the French Open revoked the wild-card entry granted to a French player, Constant Lestienne, because the Tennis Integrity Unit said he violated a rule.