The French Open does not start until today, but Rafael Nadal has already tasted defeat on clay here. It happened not at Roland Garros but at Tennis Jean Dixmier, a private club on the banks of the Seine, as rain started to fall on Friday evening at the end of a depressingly grey and chilly day.
On the evidence of what we have seen in the past three months, the 26-year-old Spaniard's loss here in a poker tournament – PokerStars, the online company who sponsor Nadal, had organised the event in the unlikely setting of an outdoor covered clay court – is likely to be the only defeat he suffers over the next fortnight. Having won six of the eight tennis tournaments (and reached the final of the two others) he has played since returning from seven months out nursing his latest knee injury, Nadal is the overwhelming favourite to add an eighth Roland Garros title to his ever-growing list of honours.
When he set out on his comeback Nadal insisted that he had no idea when – or even if – he would recapture his best form. However, his victory at the Indian Wells Masters in March (the only tournament he has played since his return which has not been on clay), which had followed defeat in the final of his first event in Vina del Mar and victories in Sao Paulo and Acapulco, suggested that even greater success was around the corner. He has since enjoyed a typically barnstorming run on European clay, his only defeat in four tournaments having been in the final at Monte Carlo, where he was beaten by Novak Djokovic.
"I cannot be arrogant, but I cannot be stupidly humble either," Nadal said when asked whether he thought he was back to his best. "When I have won in Barcelona, Rome and Madrid I cannot say that. For the last couple of weeks, for sure I was at that level. It would not be possible to win those kind of tournaments if you were not.
"I won three tournaments in which all the best players played, so it would be really stupid if I said that during these tournaments I was not at this level. But it's always the same. When I was in Vina del Mar people asked: 'Do you feel ready to win against a top 10 player?' I said no. Then in Acapulco I felt: maybe. Then against top five? Maybe. You go week by week trying your best until you create chances and that happens. I did that and I converted almost every chance.
"All I can say is that I am playing at the highest level that I could be today. I don't know if I'm at 100 per cent, 80 per cent, 50 per cent, 90 per cent. The only thing I can say is that it would be very arrogant for me to say I am not 100 per cent if I have just won three tournaments. I have had the chance to be competitive again against every player and I have had more success than I ever dreamed of five months ago."
As Nadal prepares to defend his title at a venue where he has lost only once in 54 matches, the only concern might be the cold and damp weather, which is forecast to continue for at least another week. It was in similar conditions that Djokovic won eight games in a row in last year's final before play was called off for the night. When they resumed in sunshine the following day, Nadal quickly regained control.
"I think most players prefer warmer weather," Nadal said, grateful to be back in the tiny clubhouse at Tennis Jean Dixmier, having felt the cold outside even while wearing a thick jumper and jacket. "People sometimes get confused about my game. Some people think if [the ball is bouncing] lower it's much better for me because I have a good defensive game. But it's completely the opposite. If it's faster it's much better, because my spin is more painful for opponents, who have less chance to attack me. My aggressive game also works better – and I think I become more aggressive every year."
Nadal said that controlled aggression was the key to success both on the court and at the poker table. "In poker you have to wait for the moment to play aggressively, like you do in tennis," he said. "You can't play crazily because in the end you'll make mistakes.
"In my opinion poker and tennis have a few similarities. You need to have fantastic self-control. In poker if you don't control your emotions you're going to make mistakes. In tennis it's the same. You cannot play just with your emotions. You need to play with your mentality as well. Because at the end you cannot lose your concentration for two games because if you do you will be in trouble for the set. And if you lose a set you will be in trouble for the match."
Nadal said that playing poker had helped him during his recovery. "It put me in a competitive frame of mind," he said. "I really love competition. I love playing tournaments because that's where you really find the competition against others."
Competition? If Nadal continues in his present form, there will not be much of that in the next fortnight.