Rafael Nadal found an unlikely ally in defending women’s champion Maria Sharapova after being placed on a quarter-final collision course with world No.1 Novak Djokovic at the French Open.
Critics have been quick to dismiss Nadal as a fading force after the nine-time French Open champion slumped to his lowest ranking in a decade this week following his barren run in 2015.
But Sharapova urged the doubters to lay off and just enjoy having the claycourt king back at Roland Garros after a wretched year battling an assortment of injuries and illness.
“Everyone expects so much of Rafa at this time of the year. You know, an individual loses a few matches,” Sharapova said after Friday’s draw.
“Someone that’s won this event, what is it nine times, I believe. To put so many question marks, I almost think it’s a little bit disrespectful.
“He’s an incredible champion and he has no reason to be here doing it again and his will and motivation to keep doing it and to keep proving to himself that he can do it again is pretty remarkable.
“It’s actually been a little bit sad, because if I was in his shoes I’d be a pretty accomplished and satisfied player.
“Here he is just grinding away and proving everyone wrong.”
The Spaniard will once again have to prove the sceptics wrong to claim title No.10 after landing in Djokovic’s devilish top quarter of the draw.
Nadal, though, insisted he was not looking beyond his opening match against French wildcard Quentin Halys, the teenager who lost last year’s US Open junior final to Australian Omar Jasika.
“I have to play four matches to get to the quarter-finals. I have to be ready for the first round,” said the sixth-seeded titleholder.
Roger Federer was the major beneficiary of Nadal’s lowly seeding after falling in the opposite side of the draw to last year’s two finalists, and also to in-form third seed Andy Murray.
Federer said Djokovic, who needs a Roland Garros crown to complete his career grand slam, was more unlucky than Nadal to have drawn such a potentially brutal quarter-final.
The Swiss said he was feeling good about his game but, if he didn’t win the championship, he hoped Nadal would snare a magical 10th title.
“In a way, I hope he makes it because it’s such an incredible, sick number,” Federer said.
The tournament starts on Sunday.