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Nadal’s clay game is getting into shape just in time for the French Open. “Things happen.”

ROME (AP) — Rafael Nadal’s clay mold is slowly taking shape.

Not that virtually invincible form that the tennis world has become accustomed to over the past twenty years. But it’s a form that the 22-time Grand Slam champion is starting to feel good about as he prepares to play what will likely be his last French Open.

“It’s a good moment, even if the results are not what they were anymore,” Nadal said at the Italian Open on Wednesday. “But I raise my feelings, my level. … I want to continue.”

The 37-year-old Nadal, who has indicated this will be his last year on tour, has played just nine matches this year after missing almost all of 2023 with a hip injury that required surgery.

But he is coming off his most encouraging performance of the year after making it three straight wins at the Madrid Open last week before losing in straight sets to 31st-ranked Jiri Lehecka in the fourth round.

Before Madrid, he won only one match in Barcelona.

“The line is going up without a doubt,” Nadal said, gesturing with his hand to demonstrate his improvement. “Happy to be where I am today, because a month ago it was almost impossible for me to think that I could play in Barcelona, ​​then in Madrid and now here in Rome. … Things happen.

“All matches today are tough for me, difficult and more unpredictable than the matches used to be for me, especially on clay,” Nadal added. “I accept that role. I accept that challenge. “I’m excited about the way I can play if I continue to work the right way and my body allows me.”

Nadal hopes to be competitive one last time at Roland Garros, where he is a fourteen-time champion. Rome is his last major warm-up tournament before the Grand Slam on clay starts on May 26.

“First of all I want to play against Rome. That is the tournament I am attending today. After that, I don’t think anymore,” said Nadal, who had his 1-year-old son on court this week for his practice sessions at the Foro Italico.

Nadal’s opening match in Rome is scheduled for Thursday against Belgian qualifier Zizou Bergs, who is ranked number 108.

Novak Djokovic, who is back in Rome after a month’s absence, is on the other half of Nadal’s draw. But Jannik Sinner in second and Carlos Alcaraz in third both withdrew due to injuries.

Djokovic has not played in almost a month since losing to Casper Ruud in the semi-finals of the Monte Carlo Masters. He has also not won a title this year – the first time he has reached May without a trophy since 2018, when he returned from a right elbow injury.

But the 36-year-old Serbian was optimistic about his chances of defending his French Open title.

“I think I am on the right track to peak at Roland Garros in Paris,” Djokovic said. “Hopefully I can play better here in Rome than in Monte Carlo.”

Djokovic added that his withdrawal from the Madrid Open was not due to physical problems.

“It wasn’t part of the scheme,” he said. “The plan was to come here. That’s basically it.”

Nadal has won the Italian Open a record 10 times and he rated his first two titles at the Foro Italico as his most memorable: five-set victories over Guillermo Coria and Roger Federer in 2005 and 2006 respectively.

From 2007, the Rome final was switched to a best-of-three sets format.

“The most important moments in tennis are playing best-of-five matches, because that ultimately makes the matches more emotional and dramatic and people get more involved,” Nadal said. “Those great battles that are part of the history of our sport.

“It is true that I have won here ten times. But if you tell me my memories, the memories of the first two victories in five sets against Coria and against Roger are much fresher for me than the others (titles). Even though I had great, good matches against Novak, against great players,” Nadal added. “But that’s what I think people remember more.”

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AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis