Satisfied with a job well done, Rafael Nadal picks up his gear and heads to the Chatrier locker room with his thumb up and one more win in his pocket. They are already 101 in Paris, the same number as Roger Federer at Wimbledon. There are already 300 sets achieved since he landed at Roland Garros in 2005, three more against Alexei Popyrin (6-3, 6-2 and 7-6 (3), in 2h 22m) and that resolve a crossing to ask of mouth for the Balearic, solvent and seamless in his coming-out in this edition; He is already heading towards the second round, in which he will face an old acquaintance on Thursday, the local Richard Gasquet. And an overwhelming record against him: 16-0.
As if he had taken a look at the weather forecast, unlikely for Parisians because five days of sun and heat are already linked, and that for them is like a gift from heaven, Nadal bursts into the center, his center, wearing a shirt fluorescent, lime-colored, which quickly dazzles Popyrin. The Australian, a long-legged puncher who already took a good spanking from the Mallorcan in Madrid three weeks ago, walks parsimoniously and with his head down as he fits games and has to line up the chair to think about breaks. He scratches his head, looks into infinity. Snorts. He sees no escape. Simply because there isn’t.
Nadal applies himself immediately and immediately perceives that the cat is missing its nails, so after a trial and error phase, after calibrating here and there, without the need to raise the tone, he begins to find the gaps by rehearsing angles and parables. Check right away that everything is in order: the right (left-handed, actually) and the reverse, the cuts and the parallel; he adjusts the serve progressively – there are a couple of early double faults, until the deltoid takes heat and rotates better – and as soon as the first set goes uneven (5-3) he begins to try also with the left, because the Australian, a giant 1.96, you can get tickled around and falter in races.
In the stands, a lot of cement and a lot of wood still; Canvases in the upper ring and the upper zone of the lower one, with the corporate green of the tournament to cover the void. Better this way, the false illusion of a more crowded track, although in reality the afternoon is spent in a rather intimate, silent environment, excessively quiet for a stage as cool as the Chatrier, where they like the merriment and the humming between point and point . They will come, of course they will. At the moment, the thousand spectators are not reached, who observe a serious and firm Nadal, and that as soon as the Spaniard hits them a little with one of those devastating blows, they are encouraged. Paris, grateful public: “Come on Rafa!”.
In any case, everything is very linear until in the final set things come to life. The Spaniard relaxes his arm a point and Popyrin, who plays each ball at Russian roulette, breaking it if he can, finds a small oasis with a break that neither he nor the most optimistic ones trusted.
Suddenly, he achieves a valuable 5-2 that disappears in a flash. As is usual, like most young people, he trembles when he sees the booty so close and he seizes on the two set balls that he has. After committing a double fault and a couple of rude mistakes, in a very clear volley half a meter from the net and in another that ends up hitting the wall directly in the background, Nadal regains his sense and denies him his share of joy.
In the tie-breaker In the end, the 20 grand champion expands and the Australian ends up falling like ripe fruit after a spring start in the Bois de Boulogne. Sun and victory. Necessary. A sweet and pleasant way to start his 17th track in Paris.