-- PARIS -- Around 1 p.m. local time Saturday, the fans couldn't contain their excitement, even though the French Open had yet to begin.
That tends to happen when a world No. 1 and eight-time Paris champ is out swinging away, prepping for his latest adventure in the tournament he has governed for close to a decade. Rafael Nadal, true to form, was out on Court 5, blistering an array of forehands before taking a quick break, then working on the serve that has abandoned him lately.
Rip-roaring as it was to watch him, Nadal was all business on the court, conferring with Uncle Toni on numerous occasions and then going back for more.
These, as even casual tennis fans know, are trying times for Nadal, who comes into this year's event with three clay-court losses in the same calendar year for the first time since 2005.
And, although Nadal has been the subject of more scrutiny than any other player in recent weeks, he's not the only one who will be trying to dig out of the dirt when the tournament begins Sunday.
Roger Federer heads into Paris fresh off a one-and-done effort in Rome. Stan Wawrinka has foundered since winning a tantalizing tilt with Federer in the Monte Carlo final, and it's anyone's guess as to how Andy Murray will perform given his tepid season in which he has reached only one semifinal. And, although Novak Djokovic has all the momentum in the world right now, we can't yet dismiss the wrist injury that kept him out of Madrid a couple of weeks ago.
The larger question is what all this means. If there's a legit landscape change going on, we haven't yet come to terms with it. The Big Three are responsible for winning 34 of the past 36 majors, so unless you're partying like it's 2003, we as tennis fans don't know anything but stability atop the ATP Tour.
But how's this for some proof that the paradigm is getting a big boot in the backside: Through this weekend's finals, the men have had 11 different champions in the 11 lead-up European clay events.
"Of course surprises can happen, like in every tournament," Federer said in his pre-tournament presser. "There are very many good players with very small differences between them.
"We have seen some surprises this year already with Stan, for example, in Australia. But in the French you need to play a lot. You get worn out. Some matches are really a trap."
Depending on how you skin the cat, there are a couple of ways of looking at the game's current state. On one hand, the Big Four have won 16 of the 17 majors this decade. On the other, there have been three different champs in the past three Grand Slam tournaments, including Wawrinka, who, despite his enormous improvements, was nothing short of a surprise in Melbourne. And you've had players such as Jeremy Chardy and Nicolas Almagro recently upset the game's best. But perhaps Djokovic summed it up best.
"It's obviously different than Rome," he said. "It's a Grand Slam. It's [a] two-week-long event, best-of-five, and there is a feeling that most almost all of the players who are participating in the event have an extra motivation to perform well in this tournament comparing to the other events."
Added Nadal: "Just happy to be here in Roland Garros. Happy to fight for the challenge to play well again here. And I gonna try. That's it. That's the only thing that I can say. I gonna try."
At some point, the once impenetrable wall Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and, to a lesser extent, Murray have built will crumble. That much we know. We're just not sure whether that process has already started.