All seems normal as Nadal begins pursuit of number 10
PARIS – The Eiffel Tower was still standing, the River Seine was flowing away to the sea, the traffic clogged the Peripherique and Rafa Nadal still ruled Roland Garros on Tuesday.
To all intents and purposes it was a normal day at the French Open as Nadal claimed victory number 67 since making his debut in the event in 2005.
It felt a little different though as the soon-to-be 29-year-old walked on to Court Phillipe Chatrier, the rectangle of red clay that has been the stage for his nine titles in a decade of unprecedented domination.
Such has been Nadal’s malaise this year, with claycourt defeats piling up from Monte Carlo to Rome, the Spaniard arrived in Paris only second favourite to claim a record-extending 10th title.
Tasked with providing the first test of Nadal’s supposed fragile confidence was French teenager Quentin Halys, a wildcard making his grand slam debut.
He did just that, pushing 14-times grand slam champion Nadal hard before succumbing 6-3 6-3 6-4.
Nadal often takes time to get fully into his stride at Roland Garros so Tuesday’s one hour 50 minute workout offered few clues over the health of his game.
His racket was equipped with computer technology, meaning he can download statistics for later analysis.
But the sixth seed knows he will have to reboot his game to win the title, having been placed in the same half of the draw as world number one Novak Djokovic and third seed Andy Murray.
Tournament favourite Djokovic, like Nadal, waited two days for his opening match but quickly found his stride with a 6-2 7-5 6-2 defeat of Finn Jarkko Nieminen.
The Serb, whose winning march now extends to 23 matches, came within a point of a 5-1 deficit in the second set but extricated himself to clinch victory with trademark precision.
Women’s top seed Serena Williams joined the party, lighting up a dull evening with a pink outfit and some powerful tennis to beat Czech qualifier Andrea Hlavackova 6-2 6-3.
If Nadal was nervous, one can only imagine the thoughts going through the mind of 18-year-old Halys.
He dropped his opening service game but was clearly not intimidated, striking the ball with menace and occasionally having Nadal scrambling behind the baseline.
Another service game went begging when the wildcard served three double-faults but Halys broke Nadal’s serve in the sixth game, prompting loud cheers from a crowd who revere the champion but adore a homegrown youngster taking it to one of the greats.
If the result was never in doubt, Nadal still looked relieved when he secured victory on his first match point.
BRASH AND FEARLESS
While professing himself pleased with his game after failing to win a European claycourt event this year, Nadal sounded a little wistful when commenting on a brash and fearless display from Halys, one of seven teenagers in the draw.
“He risked on every single ball,” said the Spaniard. “That’s the way tennis is going. Younger, aggressive, hitting the ball stronger and quicker, going for the winners all the time.
“But when the point was played in normal conditions I think I played well.”
Nadal’s compatriot David Ferrer, the seventh seed, bustled into the second round with a 6-1 6-3 6-1 win over Slovak Lukas Lacko while U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic hammered Dutchman Robin Haase 6-2 6-4 6-2.
Ferrer, runner-up in 2013, joins Nadal as the second active player to win 300 claycourt matches.
“It’s just a number,” said the no-nonsense Spaniard.
Eugenie Bouchard became the highest seed to fall when the number six, the golden girl of 2014 when she reached the Wimbledon final after making the semis in Paris, slumped 6-4 6-4 to Kristina Mladenovic of France.
Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov, the men’s 10th seed and the prospective fourth-round opponent for Nadal, fell at the first hurdle for a second consecutive year, going down in three sets to American Jack Sock.
Former women’s champions Svetlana Kuznetsova (2009) and Francesca Schiavone (2008) survived to fight another day after three-set tussles. – Reuters