It was ten minutes prior to 1:00 p.m. this Friday afternoon. In less than 48 hours, the 116th edition of the French Championships would get underway at Roland Garros. But as a brisk wind whipped its way through the grounds and on to the most significant clay court in all of tennis, only a scant 15-20 people were inside Court Philippe Chatrier. Two of them were children, chasing one another through an aisle, likely blissfully unaware of where they were or what would soon be taking place in this venue. But the others were certainly more away, witnessing an extraordinary person perform ordinary work.
There at the north end was Rafael Nadal. At the other was one member of his team, 1998 Roland Garros champion Carlos Moya. Moya was feeding balls to Nadal at a pace slow enough for a recreational player to comfortably strike the ball. But Nadal had a task to perform. To Moya’s right rested an empty tennis ball can, located two feet behind the deuce court service box and one foot inside the right sideline. On the left, four feet behind the ad court service line and two-to-three feet inside the baseline, was another can.
No one more than Nadal has the chance to leave a major mark on this year’s edition of the tournament. He has already won a record nine Roland Garros singles titles – more than any man has ever won any pro tournament, much less one as physically, mentally and emotionally grueling as this one. But that pursuit of epic history hardly mattered as Nadal engaged in a remarkably simple but useful drill.
Again and again, off Moya’s feeds, Nadal struck forehands, aimed at each can. Some flew close. Others missed, many long past the baseline, a few wide. Then there was the occasional backhand, laced crosscourt.
Per usual, Nadal persevered. An hour later, at the customary pre-tournament press conference, Nadal said, “And here we are another year just to try to have the right days of practice before the competition start. I know I need to be ready… So I am focused on try to work the right way.”
Such is the atmosphere of the entire tournament at this stage. The smell of imminent significance is vivid, in everything from the small trucks transporting food, to the merchandise stocked at the concessions, to broadcasters triple-checking their connections, to the stringers prepping racquets.
By 1:00 p.m., Nadal’s time on the court had ended. On to Chatrier stepped Simona Halep, joined by her coach, Darren Cahill. Halep too, hopes to make history here. A finalist here three years ago, Halep is one of at least half a dozen significant women’s contenders here. But she too knew better than to even think of that possibility. Like Nadal, for now it was all about the task at hand. Just the work. Or more pointedly, the preparation for the work. Welcome to Roland Garros, where success comes toothpick by toothpick. Or more accurately, crushed brick by crushed brick.