PARIS – For an audience with the “King of Clay,” the current queen of clay thought it best to come prepared.
Worried that she might run short of things to say, French Open champion Iga Swiatek says she readied some talking points before hitting balls in a training session in Paris with her idol, 13-time Roland Garros winner Rafael Nadal.
The pre-tournament knock-about between the men and women’s defending champions on red clay made a splash on social media. Unlike many of his opponents, Swiatek got a huge thrill from being on the receiving end of the kicking, spinning left-handed Nadal forehand that spits off the dust.
“I got to feel his forehand, which was great, and his topspin. That was a whole new experience for me,” Swiatek said after getting her title defense rolling on Monday with a straight-sets first-round win. “It gave me, like, a lot of positive energy. It was really a huge inspiration for me.”
Swiatek, who turned 20 on Monday, had just celebrated her fourth birthday when Nadal won his first French Open in 2005. Finding herself sharing a stage in Paris with the winner of 20 major titles has been among the many lifestyle changes that Swiatek has had to adapt to as a Roland Garros champion. Like Nadal back then, she won last year as a heavy-hitting teenager.
For their practice session at Roland Garros, Swiatek said she prepared “some small topics, not to have awkward silence.”
But Nadal made her feel at ease.
“Rafa is really, really great. He’s a really nice guy. Even though I am pretty introverted, it was really fun for me,” she said. “It’s really nice to see such a champion being normal off court, and also telling jokes and being a little bit sarcastic.”
“Merci, Benoit! Merci, Benoit!” chanted the fans as Benoit Paire left Court Simonne Mathieu after another loss in a year of many. There were tears in his eyes but his heart was warmed by the support.
The Frenchman has been piling up losses since the start of the pandemic — he has a 2-15 record this year — and repeatedly said he lost his appetite for tennis, especially because of restrictions preventing fans from attending matches.
He was banned from competing for his country at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics by the French tennis federation.
On Monday, the 40th-ranked Paire certainly did not feel alone. After only 1,000 spectators were allowed per day at Roland Garros last year because of COVID-19 concerns, more than five times that have been permitted this week. And the hundreds attending his match against 15th-seeded Casper Ruud loudly supported Paire with nice words and applause throughout the three hours of his 5-7, 6-2, 6-1, 7-6 (4) loss.
“Life on Tour has been so difficult over the last few months,” Paire said. “I’m back to the tennis I love, with an audience, emotions, sharing. That’s why I do this job, this sport, that’s what makes it beautiful. You don’t play for yourself, you play for everyone, to bring happiness.”