PARIS (AP) – Through the years, Rafael Nadal grew accustomed to a couple of givens at the French Open: He would arrive as the defending champion, and Roger Federer would be somewhere in the draw, often awaiting a showdown in the final.
This time around, neither is the case.
Federer withdrew a few days before Sunday's start of the clay-court Grand Slam tournament, ending his record run of 65 consecutive major appearances.
"For the fans, for the tournament, for the world (of) tennis, in general, is ... very negative news, no?" Nadal said.
Nadal won the title at Roland Garros every year from 2005-08 and from 2010-14 — a record nine in all, beating Federer in four of those finals — but returns to town trying to earn back the trophy after relinquishing it in 2015.
He is seeded fourth.
"It's a tournament that I know I can play well," said Nadal, who lost in the quarterfinals to Novak Djokovic a year ago. "If I am playing well, I know I can do good things."
Nadal, who owns 14 major championships in all, could face No. 1 Djokovic in about two weeks in the semifinals — on what would be the Spaniard's 30th birthday.
Asked about that milestone, Nadal waxed philosophical.
"You know, time never stops. Nobody stops the time," he said. "That's not a good thing, but at the same time, I am happy with my life. I enjoyed all these years on the tour, and I hope to keep enjoying the next couple of years."
After dealing with health problems and a crisis of confidence last season, Nadal has been playing better on his favorite red clay of late.
He is 19-4 on the surface this season, including titles at Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Not bad, but not up to his old standards. In his past two tournaments, Nadal lost in the Madrid semifinals to Andy Murray, and the Rome quarterfinals to Djokovic.
"A lot of tournaments in a row playing well," said Nadal, who faces Sam Groth in the first round in Paris. "I need to just keep going."