PARIS — Right now, French Open champions Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams are as good as it gets in tennis.
But at Wimbledon in two weeks, Nadal will be merely a serious contender, while Williams will be the unquestioned favorite.
Both are 43-2 in 2013. He’s won 22 matches in a row. Her winning streak is at 31, the longest single-season run on the women’s tour in 13 years.
Nadal’s Grand Slam title total stands at 12, tied for the third most in the history of the men’s game. Williams is up to 16 major singles trophies, sixth best among women.
At Wimbledon is where the similarities end. Williams is a five-time champion at the All England Club, including a year ago, and the way she’s playing at the moment, there is little reason to anticipate anyone beating her there this time. Nadal, despite his recent form, is still among a group of possible champions.
Even the Nadals acknowledge he is not quite as superb on grass as he is on clay. How could he be? He is 59-1 in the French Open, with four titles in a row from 2005-08 and another four in a row from 2010-13, and the only man to claim eight titles at the same major.
That said, he’s done well at Wimbledon, winning in 2008 and 2010, and losing in the final to Federer in 2006-07 and to Novak Djokovic in 2011.
A year ago, though, Nadal exited in the second round against Lukas Rosol, who was ranked 100th at the time. That would be the last match Nadal played for about seven months because of a painful left knee, an absence that saw him skip the London Olympics, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open and is the reason he’s ranked No. 5 this week, not higher.
He usually likes to prepare for Wimbledon by playing in another grass-court tournament during the week right after the French Open. But this time, Nadal chose not to, withdrawing from the field in Halle, Germany, and opting for rest, instead.
“That’s not the ideal situation before a Grand Slam like Wimbledon that is on grass,” Nadal said. “The conditions are very different.”
At first, he found grass to be problematic, but his accomplishments at Wimbledon are ample proof that he figured out a way to overcome that.
“You can improve always, in every way,” Nadal said. “And in tennis, for sure, you can keep improving.”
Unlike Nadal, Williams has had her issues with red clay: After winning the French Open in 2002, it took her 11 years to get a second trophy. And unlike Nadal, she’s excelled more on other surfaces, with those five Wimbledon championships, plus five on hard courts at the Australian Open, and four on hard courts at the U.S. Open.
Tough as her serve was to handle at the French Open these last two weeks – she hit 10 aces in Saturday’s final against Maria Sharapova including three in the last game – it should only be more effective on grass, where balls skid instead of clay’s higher bounces.
After her own stunning early exit at a Grand Slam tournament last year — at Roland Garros, in the first round, to a woman ranked 111th — Williams immediately went about fixing things. She stuck around Paris to practice for Wimbledon at coach Patrick Mouratoglou’s tennis academy and has gone 74-3 since, winning three of the last four major titles, plus gold at the Olympics.
“It really was a shock for her. She really worked on rebuilding herself to become perhaps stronger than ever,” Mouratoglou said.
And Williams insists that she is willing to find new areas to work on, which might not be comforting to other women hoping to knock her from No. 1.
“The day I feel that I cannot improve, it’s going to be a problem for me. I’m going to have to really debate whether I should keep playing,” said Williams, who almost always skips Wimbledon tuneup tournaments. “But I feel like, as of now, I can do a lot of things better. I can be better. I feel like I can be more fit. There’s still a level of improvement that I can reach.”
It’s hard to top being unbeatable, which is what she and Nadal have been lately.