Rafael Nadal has won the French Open nine times, and he was given a rather difficult first round going up against the unpredictable Frenchman Benoit Paire, but he was able to overcome that with a 6-1, 6-4, 6-1 victory. This moves Rafa one step closer to his pursuit of a tenth Roland Garros win.
It takes something particularly special indeed for the normally partisan Parisian crowd to greet a foreign player with a louder cheer than the one given to a home hope. When a squinting Benoît Paire emerged onto a sun-drenched Court Suzanne-Lenglen on Monday afternoon, the cheers and stomping of feet almost caused a tremor. When Rafael Nadal followed him out shortly afterward, it was more like an eruption.
Nadal has history in his sights at Roland-Garros this year. Victory here in Paris would see him win his 15th Grand Slam, lifting him above Pete Sampras and behind only Roger Federer on the list of all-time singles titles. But it would also importantly mean something else: La Decima. It is a feat never before achieved in the men’s game; a level of dominance to rival Margaret Court’s eleven Australian Open titles.
For a long while, it looked as though the opportunity to win for a tenth time in Paris had passed Nadal by. His quarter-final defeat to Novak Djokovic in 2015 — just his second defeat in 70 matches at Roland-Garros — understandably prompted concern in his camp. But it was his exit from last year’s tournament, because of injury, that really fueled the fear that Nadal had won his last major honor.
He would end up finishing the 2016 season having failed to reach the semi-finals of a Grand Slam in over two years, struggling with a persistent wrist injury and in real danger of dropping outside the top ten. With his 31st birthday fast approaching and struggling to maintain fitness, the end appeared to be in sight.
But Nadal has always been a fighter. He started the new season in scintillating form, finishing as the runner-up at the Australian Open and winning three of the four clay-court tune-ups preceding Roland-Garros. And when a similarly revitalized Roger Federer announced that he was skipping the clay-court swing to focus on Halle and Wimbledon, Nadal was quickly instated as the favorite to win in France.
On Monday, he got his tournament off to an almost perfect start, rapidly dispatching the experienced clay-courter Paire 6-1 6-4 6-1 in front of his fawning French crowd. Nadal stormed out of the blocks, taking the first set in a 24-minute onslaught that saw him win 11 out of 12 points on his thunderous first serve. He was helped by a dazed looking Paire making no fewer than 10 unforced errors.
In the second, the Frenchman managed to calm his nerves and crank up the aggression. He began to take risks, attacking Nadal’s serve early and broke to lead 3-1. Paire even had chances to move 5-3 ahead, but failed to take them, and it was with some inevitability that Nadal went on to claim the set 6-4, despite winning just 47 percent of the point on his first serve.
Spent from the extra effort he had put into the second set, Paire again lost 6-1 in the third, with Nadal vociferously applauded from the court.
Completely predictably, Nadal was in no mood to contentedly reflect on a job well done in the press conference following his match, instead drawing attention to his weak first serve in the second set.
“I don’t know the percentage, but I feel that some moments I was not serving that well,” he admitted. “I need to be very focused on the serve in my next match [against Robin Haase] because returning can be tough and I will need to play very solid to win.”
Minor concerns with his serve aside, Nadal should have far too much for World No 43 Haase, who he will play back in the familiar surroundings of Court Philippe Chatrier after he was unceremoniously relegated from the center court to accommodate defending champion Novak Djokovic’s match against Marcel Granollers.
Nadal will watch a replay of the match — a routine 6-3 6-4 6-2 win for Djokovic — very carefully. The pair are on a collision cause for the semi-finals, and despite his indifferent form, Djokovic remains the man most likely to halt Nadal in his pursuit of history.
Intimidatingly, the World No 2 began his tournament in good form, breaking Granollers twice early on and cruising to a simple straight-sets victory under the watchful eye of new coach Andre Agassi. However, Djokovic revealed after the match that if he was to win his second French Open, he would ultimately have to do it by himself.
“He’s going to stay, I hope, until the end of this week. But then he has to leave because he has some things that he cannot reschedule,” Djokovic said. “I’m going to try to use the time spent with him as best as we can. So far plenty of information, plenty of things to process. I’m really enjoying it.”
Djokovic did, however, add that he hopes the partnership can become a “long-term” arrangement.