When Roger Federer turned up to talk about his chances of winning what would be his fourth consecutive Grand Slam, it was disconcerting for the great man to be seated beneath a gigantic picture of Rafael Nadal, the reigning champion of Roland Garros and the man fancied by every bookmaker (at odds on, moreover) to extend his domination over the world's greatest racket exponent by lifting the trophy again.
Federer will today kick-start his campaign to add the French to the Wimbledon, US and Australian titles he has annexed over the past 10 months when he faces a local hero, Arnaud Clement, the first time Roland Garros has moved forward 24 hours from a Monday start. But it was inevitably Nadal who was on his mind, though he dismissed their confrontations as a rivalry, explaining the results had been too one-sided (Nadal leads 5-1).
"I think maybe it's getting there slowly," said Federer. "We still haven't played enough yet, and a rivalry needs a win and a loss, a win and a loss. That's not what's been really going on, he's been winning the last few. Though [Nadal] has only been on the tour for a couple of years, it's heading into a very nice direction for tennis by having a player like him. For me, once again it's an exciting time."
Federer was cut down by the Nadal combine harvester in last year's Roland Garros semi-finals, since when he has not been able to close the gap on an opponent who spent the winter rehabilitating a foot injury yet who has sprung into the clay-court season like a demented flamenco dancer.
Though not a topical, trendy metatarsal, Nadal's problem had its origin in a stress fracture in 2004. Then last autumn he damaged the tendon and muscles around the old stress injury. Now he plays with remedial inserts in shoes specially made for him by Nike. Specially labelled, too, with "Vamos" ("Let's go") on the left heel and his name on the right. Nadal has been vamos-ing through the clay season, winning consecutive tournaments in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome, where he survived two match points against Federer in a five-hour classic.
For the moment, his English does not come near matching the excellence of his tennis, but in both fields he tries, he really does. Pointing out that Federer is the world No 1, while he is only No 2, Nadal explained his continuing success thus: "I am positive always, no? I am very good attitude always. I always play my 100 per cent. I fight always. Every match, every ball. I don't have a lot of mistakes. And maybe in clay that's important, no?"
Tomorrow's first round against the Swede, Robin Soderling, should see Nadal shatter the record of consecutive clay-court victories which he currently shares with Guillermo Vilas on 53. But, charmingly, he stressed that records were not paramount in his thinking. "I'm going to be trying my best, not for the record, for Roland Garros." So Federer, and everyone else, knows the direction the exciting young Spaniard is pointing.
The draw was not kind to Federer, landing him in the same quarter as David Nalbandian, someone else who is capable of giving him a hard time, especially on clay. If the Argentinian avoids ambush before the last eight and if Federer overcomes him, a Swiss-Spanish final looks certain, since there appears no one capable of giving those "Vamos" shoes an extended run.
In nine of the past 10 years, the Coupe Mousquetaires has been hoisted by Latins, either from Spain or South America. The exception was 1999, when Andre Agassi completed his full set of Slam crowns. Sadly, the Bald One is absent because of ongoing sciatica worries, allegedly keeping his powder dry, and his hip free of pain, in readiness for one last charge at Wimbledon.
So the American battalion will be led into battle by James Blake, someone who has known, and continues to know, what it takes to play tennis in pain. So well has the popular New Yorker done this season that he is seeded eighth here, and it is bleak news for Andy Murray that, should he get past his keenly anticipated first round against his French teen counterpart Gaël Monfils (known as Sliderman in these parts), he would probably run up against Blake, though the American would need first to see off another Spaniard, Nicolas Almagro, not far behind Nadal in the vroom-vroom stakes.
Still, the cheery news for Murray is that this time a year ago he was competing in the junior event. And after this he will move on to the scene of 2005 triumphs at Queen's and Wimbledon.
The other Britons, Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, should not be long in heading for the grass, either. After two winnable rounds, Henman - a semi-finalist here in 2004 - would run into Nalbandian, while Rusedski's fate, if successful in the first round, would be to clash with the Croatian Mario Ancic, who is formidable on any surface.
There are, without doubt, lurkers in the French field who can upset even the best clay people - the 6ft 10in Ivo Karlovic, whose serve can be hidden in low cloud; that mighty Chilean forehand smiter Fernando Gonzalez; Marat Safin if he stirs his stumps; Andy Roddick if his ailing ankle is better; Ivan Ljubicic on any favourable day. But it is hard to look beyond Nadal v Federer a fortnight today.
KING OF CLAY: ANATOMY OF A TENNIS POWERHOUSE WHO SIMPLY NEVER STOPS RUNNING
Not since the heyday of Jimmy Connors has tennis seen someone who fights for every point with such ferocity, which is why clay and its sliding qualities suit Nadal's style perfectly.
The physical build-up has been going on since Nadal opted for tennis over football aged 12. It is directed by his uncle Miguel Angel Nadal, Barcelona's former hard-man defender.
A right-hander who was advised to switch arms to strengthen the left side of his body, Nadal has extra backhand power since it is his "natural" hitting action.
The crucial "engine" of every tennis player. Nadal's rigorous training programme ensures that he is one of the game's most durable runners and finest movers.
The source of Nadal's only fitness worries. Following a stress fracture in 2004, he damaged a tendon near the old injury last autumn and now wears shoes with special inserts.Reuse content