Rafael Nadal’s mood is ready for the title again. It almost naturally is when the Spaniard travels to his favorite tournament. But this year his start at the French Open in Paris is accompanied by doubts. The soon to be 36-year-old tennis professional wiped them aside jokingly at a press conference in the Stade Roland Garros on Friday. Confronted with Alexander Zverev’s statement that Nadal would play 30 percent better on the Philippe Chatrier court in Paris than anywhere else in the world, he had to grin.

“30 percent better than in all places or 30 percent better than all other players?” he asked and had the laughs on his side. “Maybe I was 30 percent better here, but I’m not anymore,” he added almost sentimentally.

A few days ago it was anything but certain that Nadal would even be able to compete in Paris this year. His foot injury, which has plagued him for years and for which he had been out for months in 2021, had caused him such visible problems in Rome that it seemed possible that Roland Garros could be canceled. And even if he does start now, it remains to be seen what he is actually able to achieve. He is definitely not the absolute top favorite this year.

He played just five matches on clay in front of Paris in 2022 and lost two of them. He traveled to the French capital without a tournament win on his favorite surface and with an injury that leaves questions unanswered. “What happened in Rome happens again and again in training. I was in pain for a few days afterwards, but I’m better now. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here,” he tried not to overemphasize the subject.

And after all, he is already familiar with the situation where he competes in a Grand Slam tournament without proper preparation. “The same thing happened in Australia and I put myself in a position to have a chance there,” explained Nadal. At the Australian Open in Melbourne he sensationally won the title earlier this year, his 21st at one of the four major tournaments.

He then continued his incredible winning streak, winning in Acapulco and also making it to the final in Indian Wells. There, alongside winner Taylor Fritz, his own body stopped him once again. A fatigue fracture in the rib area suffered during the tournament then led to a break of several weeks, and he was only able to make his comeback in Madrid. “There’s no doubt that other players are in better shape than I am right now. But you never know what will happen in the next few days,” Nadal said.

He has already won the world’s largest clay court tournament 13 times, but he doesn’t want to talk about a 14th title before his first match against the Australian Jordan Thompson: “My actual goal is to train well and be competitive from the first round .” Already in the second round there could be a repeat of the 2017 final against the long-injured Swiss Stan Wawrinka.

It should be even more difficult for the Spaniard in the second week, if he achieves that. A duel with Novak Djokovic is possible in the quarterfinals. The defending champion is the only player to have defeated Nadal twice at the French Open, most recently in last year’s top-flight semi-final. There are also Alexander Zverev, for whom the first round against Austrian Sebastian Ofner is due on Sunday, and young star Carlos Alcaraz in Nadal’s tableau half. “In my head, it doesn’t matter to me. But of course, when you see these names, it’s a very tough draw purely from a tennis point of view,” said Nadal.

Overall, the Spaniard looked relaxed in the days leading up to the tournament. He himself knows how things are with him and his body. After his painful departure in Rome against the Canadian Denis Shapovalov, who was otherwise absolutely controllable for him on sand, he only said succinctly: “I’m not injured, I’m a player who lives with an injury.” Perhaps it helps Nadal to know that every tournament , which he can still play at an advanced tennis age, is in itself a small triumph for him.

Paris is also special for him this year for another reason. The final of the Champions League in soccer will take place here next Saturday and it’s no secret that Real Madrid is his heart club. He then meets Liverpool at the Stade de France. He was asked whether Nadal would watch the game live in the stadium. He responded emphatically: “There is nothing more important to me than playing here in Roland Garros. That’s clear, isn’t it?!” After a short pause, he added with a mischievous smile: “But of course I’ve had my tickets for a long time.”