Rafael Nadal has a well-established reputation as tennis' greatest clay-court player. After overcoming some recent struggles, the Spaniard returns to the French Open with confidence that he can claim yet another title in Paris.
Nadal, ranked No.5 and seeded No. 4, suffered just the second loss of his career at the tournament last year when he fell to No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals. On Tuesday, the nine-time champion opens the tournament against No. 100 Sam Groth of Australia in a first-round matchup.
Despite owning a 70-2 all-time mark at the French with a record nine titles, Nadal is wary of Groth to start the second Grand Slam of the year.
“He’s uncomfortable for the first round. He’s a difficult one,” Nadal said of Groth. “You need to be ready to suffer a little bit during the match because I know he’s going to be difficult to have breaks against. I hope to be ready to stay focused mentally and to compete well.”
Judging by career numbers, Groth isn’t exactly an imposing threat to Nadal in their first matchup. The 28-year-old owns a 2-9 record in 2016, has yet to play on clay, and is 1-3 overall on the challenging surface. Groth’s biggest win of the season was a five-set thriller over No. 48 Adrian Mannarino at the Australian Open, during which he fired off a whopping 27 aces.
Big serve or not, Nadal has built some momentum on clay before the French. He’s 19-4 in clay tournaments this season, including two titles in Barcelona and Monte Carlo and huge victories over No. 6 Kei Nishikori and No. 2 Andy Murray.
Mentally, though, Nadal may have some demons to overcome when he officially storms Roland Garros. He's in the unfamiliar terrority of entering the tournament without being the favorite.
“It’s better to be here defending your title than not,” Nadal told reporters Saturday. “But at the same time, it’s obvious that it’s impossible to have the same feeling every year. I had that feeling a lot of times in my career, but I’m not arriving with this feeling this year.
“At the same time, I am excited. The goal still is always the same if you are defending or you are not defending. It doesn’t make a big difference on what you want to do.”
Play was delayed for two hours on Monday due to rain. There is a 10 percent chance of rain in Paris on Tuesday.
Prediction: Groth may put up a fight, but expect Nadal to prevail in three sets.
Start Time: Nadal and Groth meet on Suzanne Lenglen Court after completion of Francesca Schiavone vs. Kristina Mladenovic, which takes place at 5:00 a.m. ET.
TV Channel: Tennis Channel
Live Stream: Tennis Channel Everywhere