Federer, 39, has not played since February because of two knee surgeries and does not plan to return to competition until 2021. Federer won his 20th major title at the 2018 Australian Open but Nadal has steadily narrowed the gap since then as he won the French Open twice more and the United States Open in 2019 to bring his total to 19.
Nadal, true to character, has downplayed the chase.
“I am happy with who I am,” he said, tapping his chest with an index finger, in an interview with The New York Times earlier this year. “I was very happy with 16, very happy with 17, very happy with 18, very happy with 19, and if one day I get to 20, I will be very happy, too. But my level of happiness is not going to change because of this. Do I make myself clear?”
When pressed, he has acknowledged that he is not immune to the lure of the history books. But he has always been more interested in looking forward to the next point, the next match, the next challenge than looking back at all the castles he has built on the clay and elsewhere.
It is his not-so-secret weapon — that deep focus on process over destination.
Though he was the reigning champion at the U.S. Open, he decided not to play in New York this year and remained at home in Majorca, Spain, where he trained on clay at his eponymous academy. He believed that making the trip to the United States would risk wearing him down for the abbreviated clay-court season, with the French Open coming just two weeks after the men’s U.S. Open final.
So far, so smart, but he is on new ground here. He has never won the French Open without winning a clay-court tournament in the lead-up and no one has ever won a French Open in October. His forehand is not bouncing as high in the cool conditions. His serve is not traveling as quickly: down, on average, four miles per hour from 2019.
But despite all of the above, he has yet to drop a set in the tournament.
After fighting through a 14-minute opening game on Friday to hold serve against Schwartzman, he worked his way through the grinding first set, full of double-digit rallies and all-court hustle.
He adjusted after losing to Schwartzman in Rome: moving in closer on first-serve returns and much closer on second-serve returns. It paid off with break after break, and though Schwartzman tried drop shots, they were not as consistently successful.