Rafael Nadal began his pursuit of an unprecedented 14th French Open title with a hard-fought straight-sets success against Alexei Popyrin on Tuesday afternoon.
The Spaniard – level on 20 Grand Slam titles alongside Roger Federer – is chasing another slice of history on the Parisian clay, and he kicked off his campaign with a 6-3 6-2 7-6 victory over the spirited Australian.
Popyrin made a positive start on the sun-bathed Philippe Chatrier court, and although Nadal stamped his authority on proceedings midway through the contest, the world No 61 also fashioned out set points in a high-quality third set.
However, the 21-year-old was unable to replicate Daniel Brands and John Isner by becoming the third man to take a set off Nadal in the opening round at Roland Garros, as the 13-time champion prevailed in two hours and 23 minutes.
In his 103rd appearance on the red dirt, Nadal secured his 101st victory to set up a second-round showdown against Richard Gasquet, who eased past his compatriot Hugh Gaston in straight sets.
Nadal has remarkably relinquished just 27 sets throughout his French Open career, and he defied a positive start from Popyrin to wrap up the opening set with a solitary break of serve.
The Australian fired down four aces in his first three service games, but Nadal converted his only break point to move 5-3 ahead, before closing out the set with a commanding hold.
Having been level at 3-3 in the opener, Nadal extended his winning sequence to seven games to establish a 4-0 cushion in the second, and although Popyrin avoided the ignominy of a bagel, that only provided a temporary reprieve as the third seed doubled his lead minutes later.
The talented Australian maintained his aggressive approach, however, and it paid dividends as he secured his first break of serve to lead 4-2 in the third, only to squander two glorious opportunities to force a fourth set.
Popyrin spurned his first set point courtesy of a double fault, before wasting another after miscuing a seemingly regulation overhead, which saw Nadal level at five apiece from 2-5 adrift.
The Spaniard sensed blood and almost registered another break, although Popyrin displayed admirable resistance, saving four break points to force a third set tie-break.
“This year, we come back to a normal date. So, yeah, warm conditions. I think for everybody is much more comfortable to play under these conditions than in the other ones. That’s what we are used to play here in Roland Garros. Yeah, I am happy for that.”
Back to normality for Nadal…
However, the indomitable ‘King of Clay’ produced a virtually flawless breaker to seal his progression in emphatic style, winning it 7-3 to maintain his bid for a record-extending 14th Roland Garros success, with Gasquet his next assignment on Thursday.
The world No 3 has won all 16 of their previous meetings at senior level, with Gasquet’s last win over Nadal incredibly coming when the pair were both 12-years-old.
Dominant Djokovic lays down marker
Novak Djokovic made history by prevailing in the first men’s night match in French Open history, defeating enigmatic American Tennys Sandgren in three straight sets.
The Serbian admitted it would be ‘sad and ‘no fun’ to begin his campaign without fans in attendance, as his clash coincided with a government-enforced Covid-19 curfew.
Despite this, the world No 1 produced a superb display to account for an impressive Sandgren, as his pursuit of a 19th Grand Slam crown got underway with a 6-2 6-4 6-2 success.
The 34-year-old – who could potentially meet Nadal in the semi-finals – underlined his intent with an immediate break of serve.
The world No 1 raced to the opening set in comprehensive fashion, and history repeated itself early in set two, as Djokovic claimed another early break to tighten his grip on proceedings.
Sandgren’s frustration was compounded moments later when he was unable to convert four break points to restore parity, but to his credit, he continued to unleash a barrage of big hitting to test Djokovic’s defence.
The 2016 champion was visibly frustrated with the glaring floodlights on Court Philippe Chatrier, although it did not hamper his performance, as he defied two more break points fashioned out by Sandgren to triumph 6-4 in a high-quality second set.
The American avoided being broken in the opening game for a third consecutive set, although this provided scant consolation when Djokovic rattled off five games without reply to move to the cusp of victory, which he duly sealed to maintain his unblemished opening round record in Paris.
Struff struts his stuff in five
Andrey Rublev became the second top-10 player to crash out in the opening round, after succumbing to Jan-Lennard Struff in a compelling five-set epic.
Seventh seed Rublev fought back from two sets down to force a decider, only for Struff – who has now won his last seven five-set matches – to close out a 6-3 7-6 4-6 3-6 6-4 victory.
Felix Auger-Aliassime was another seeded casualty on Tuesday afternoon. The 20-year-old Canadian was beaten in four sets by Italian veteran Andreas Seppi, who registered just his second win at this tournament since 2015.
However, last year’s semi-finalist Diego Schwartzman endured no such difficulty, as he cruised past Lu Yen-Hsun in straight sets, relinquishing just seven games en route to victory.
Matteo Berrettini will be one of seven Italians to feature in the last 64 at Roland Garros, after the ninth seed accounted for Japan’s Taro Daniel in four sets to set up a clash against Feliciano Lopez’ conqueror Federico Coria.
Gael Monfils also advanced to the second round, recovering from losing the opening set to defeat world No 38 Albert Ramos-Vinolas.
Vinolas stormed to the opening set in 24 minutes and led 4-1 in the second, but the 13th seed – roared on by his home faithful – prevailed in a thrilling second set tie-break, which ignited his comeback.
Monfils has spoken candidly about struggling to perform in the sterile behind-closed-doors environments, yet he thrived in the partisan atmosphere generated on Court Suzanne Lenglen.
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