REUTERS: Rafa Nadal has the perfect chance to equal Roger Federer's record 20 Grand Slam titles at the French Open he has made his own, but for once the conditions are stacked against the King of Clay heading into the rescheduled tournament.
A record 12-time winner at Roland Garros, Nadal usually lands in Paris in May fresh from romping through the claycourt season from Monte Carlo to Rome, before pummelling the pretenders to his crown at Roland Garros.
Three of his French Open crowns have been achieved without even dropping a set.
But this time he heads for the French capital after playing only three matches in the last six months because of the COVID-19 pandemic that prompted his decision to sit out the U.S. Open over concerns about the virus.
He resumed with a couple of wins against Dusan Lajovic and Pablo Carreno Busta in the Italian Open last week but the rustiness of the long lay-off was evident during his shock quarter-final defeat to Argentina's Diego Schwartzman.
Nadal made 30 unforced errors against Schwartzman and surrendered his serve five times in the straight sets defeat, explaining the loss as due to a "completely special and unpredictable year".
For six-time Grand Slam champion Boris Becker, Nadal's scant preparation could prove costly.
"Even a Rafael Nadal needs match practice, and that's missing this year," Becker said. "He remains my number one for the title, but I think the others' chances are much better this year. This year is different."
While there are doubts about Nadal's form, his two closest competitors Dominic Thiem and Novak Djokovic will be better prepared. Federer is missing the tournament due to recovering from knee surgery.
Thiem, beaten by Nadal in the last two Roland Garros finals, will be feeling confident after winning the US Open to finally land a first career grand slam, while world number one Djokovic went on to beat Schwartzman in the Italian Open final.
Nadal has had the better off Djokovic on clay in recent years but he will have to cope with different conditions this time due to a cooler climate than the usual warmth and the addition of night games.
"Definitely Diego showed that Rafael is beatable on clay," Djokovic said after the Rome final.
"The conditions that they played on, obviously heavy clay, not much bounce, humid, night sessions, we are going to have that as well in Paris. I'm pretty sure that he does not prefer that to a high bounce. I know he likes the high bounce.
"He likes the hot and warm and fast conditions, where he can use his spin a lot. Let's see. It's going to be interesting. Even though he's the favourite, I think there are players that can win against him there."
(Reporting by Richard Martin; editing by Martyn Herman)