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Rivals relive what it's like to play Nadal at the French Open


At this point in Rafael Nadal’s career, he is most eager for one particular spectator to get to watch him play: His 1-year-old son.

As the start of the French Open approaches on Sunday, no one knows with any certainty how much longer the clay-court tournament’s 14-time champion will try to compete after a series of injuries that limited his ability to play for most of 2023 and 2024.

"Well, I would love to play a little bit longer and give him a memory of myself playing tennis. That’s what will be the ideal thing for me and for my wife and family," Nadal, who turns 38 on June 3, said about Rafael Jr. "But probably, I will not be able to make that happen."

Plenty of other folks have vivid recollections of seeing Nadal display his relentless excellence on a tennis court. That includes the many players who have been on the other side of the net for at least one of his 1,299 professional matches.

No one has taken on Nadal more than Novak Djokovic, one of his rivals in the so-called Big Three of men’s tennis, which also featured the now-retired Roger Federer. There have been 59 installments of Nadal vs. Djokovic, more than between any two other men in the Open era of tennis, which dates to 1968.

Djokovic leads 30-29 overall, while Nadal leads 11-7 in Grand Slam matches — including 8-2 at Roland Garros.

Worth noting: Djokovic is responsible for two of Nadal’s three losses in his French Open career.

"It's probably one of the biggest challenges that you can have in the tennis tour, playing Rafa at Roland Garros. We know his records there. I played him probably more than any other player has played him on that court. The court is bigger. There is more space, which affects visually the play a lot and the feeling of the player on the court. He likes to stand behind quite far back (to) return. You have some times when he’s really in the zone and in the groove, not making many errors," Djokovic said. "You feel like he’s impenetrable. He’s like a wall."

Here are other players’ perspectives on what it’s like to face Nadal — and observations from some of the sport’s top women:

“The thing is that, no matter which form Rafa is (in) or how he’s feeling, when he steps, especially, on clay — I would say it doesn’t matter if it’s clay or hard court, but especially on clay — you’re still scared. You’re still scared of Rafa.” — Daniil Medvedev, the 2021 U.S. Open champion and twice the runner-up to Nadal in Grand Slam finals.

"I'm going to be depressed when Rafa retires. He’s my favorite player. He’s my No. 1 inspiration. I admire him so much. His whole personality is unique." — Maria Sakkari, a two-time Grand Slam semifinalist.

"Somehow you feel like you’re winning, but then somehow you end up not." — Alexander Zverev, the 2020 U.S. Open runner-up.

"Playing Rafa is something special. It's just different, especially on clay, the surface that he just dominated over the past 20 years. No one will ever have a record like him on this surface. He’s just bigger than the sport, at the end of the day." — Hubert Hurkacz, who beat Nadal on clay at the Italian Open in May.

"When I was younger, he was basically the only player I looked up to -- but not because of his game on clay. More because of the way he is off the court, as well, and how he never gives up." — Iga Swiatek, a three-time French Open champion and the No. 1-ranked woman.

"His legacy will live on forever. He has done some absolutely stellar performances and broken records that I don’t think will be broken again in tennis." — Stefanos Tsitsipas, a two-time Grand Slam finalist.

"I feel a little bit sad about it, because he’s definitely one of my favorite players to watch. His mentality and intensity is something I admire." — Coco Gauff, the reigning U.S. Open champion.

"Rafa has given so much to the sport, no? A different mentality. How to approach practice sessions. How to approach matches. How to come out from difficult situations." — Jannik Sinner, the 2024 Australian Open champion.

"He's the best one who ever walked this planet, if we speak about playing on clay." — Jiri Lehecka, after beating Nadal on clay in Rome in May.

"It's very overwhelming to play him. ... The intensity he can give sometimes with his forehand and backhand — it’s brutal." — Zizou Bergs, who lost to Nadal in Rome.

"He's as comfortable as someone can be on a tennis court." — Sebastian Korda, who lost to Nadal in the French Open main's stadium in 2020.

"We cannot play like him or have the spin he does, of course, but we can try to pick up small things that can work for our game. Like, for example, the placement of the ball. The buildup of the point. The footwork. Everyone can learn something. It just depends what you see." — Elina Svitolina, a three-time Grand Slam semifinalist.


AP Sports Writer Andrew Dampf in Rome contributed to this report.


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