Former clay king Rafael Nadal bids to land 10th French Open crown

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Roland Garros will feel a little different to Rafael Nadal this year but no less special.

For only the second time since his French Open debut in 2005, the Spaniard arrived in Paris without the tag of defending champion.

Nadal finally released his vice-like grip on the Coupe des Mousquetaires when he was beaten by Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals last year, with the Serbian going on to lose to Stan Wawrinka in the final.

"It's better to be here defending your title than not," said Nadal. "But at the same time, it's obvious that it's impossible to have the same feeling every year.

"I had that feeling a lot of times in my career, but I'm not arriving with this feeling this year. At the same time, I am excited. The goal still is always the same if you are defending or you are not defending. It doesn't make a big difference on what you want to do."

Nine times the champion on the red clay of Paris, Nadal will look to become the first player to win 10 grand slam singles titles at the same event.

The 29-year-old Spaniard describes Roland Garros as the most important place of his career - how could he not? - and he said: "It's true that I had a lot of success here and it's true that I like the tournament. I like the organisation.

"I feel very comfortable with all the staff here in Roland Garros. I know all the people who run the tournament.

"I feel a little bit like home because I have a great relationship with all of them, and that makes the event even more special for me.

"In terms of being a tennis player, it's a tournament that I know I can play well. If I am playing well, I know I can do good things. I know the court adjusts well to my game because it's so big. The only thing that I need is to play well."

Playing well has been far from guaranteed for Nadal over the past couple of years but, after a sticky start to 2016, the signs have been more encouraging.

He won his first Masters title for two years in Monte Carlo in April and following that up with victory in Barcelona.

There were some good signs in Madrid and Rome, too, although he was beaten by Andy Murray and Djokovic.

Getting past Djokovic, who he is scheduled to meet in the semi-finals, will be a huge task given he has lost his last seven meetings against the world number one.

But Nadal, seeded fourth following the withdrawal of Roger Federer, is clearly playing much better than he was 12 months ago and is happy with his consistency.

He said: " I played a few good events in a row. So I hope to continue playing well here. That's my goal - keep going the same way that I am playing, and if it's possible to play even a little bit better and better."

The draw certainly did no favours to the Spaniard, who has dangerous players like Fabio Fognini, Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem lurking in his section and home favourite Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in his quarter.

First up is big-serving Australian Sam Groth, and Nadal said: " He's an uncomfortable first round. I need to be ready to suffer a little bit during the match, because I know it's going to be difficult to have breaks."

Nadal will have to wait until Monday or Tuesday for his first match, with fifth seed Kei Nishikori the biggest name in action on the opening day.

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Rafael Nadal
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