French Open 2015: Rafael Nadal begins quest for record No10

Rafael Nadal begins his quest for a record 10th French Open title with a straight-sets win over Quentin Halys in Paris

For all his relative ‘woes’ of the last 12 months—and, since winning his ninth title here at Roland Garros last year, Rafael Nadal’s woes stacked up through the rest of 2014—it was always going to be a mountain of the very highest order that the wild card 18-year-old Frenchman had to climb to get even a set off the mighty Spaniard.

Quentin Halys, ranked 296, was making his Grand Slam debut, and what an opening match: On the grandest clay stage, Philippe Chatrier, against a man who had lost only one match here in 67 played.

So while Nadal’s form, even on his beloved clay, was under close scrutiny after failing to win any of the big European titles that herald the arrival of Roland Garros, this promised to be as comfortable an opener as the champion could wish for.

In fact, Nadal had barely played a tournament after the clay season last year, losing in the fourth round at Wimbledon and nursing injury and then appendicitis for the much of the remainder of 2014. And by the time that this Roland Garros came around, he had won just a single tournament, the 250 in Buenos Aires.

There had been good results—a lost final to Novak Djokovic in the Monte-Carlo and to Andy Murray in Madrid, but also surprise losses: in his second match in Barcelona to Fabio Fognini and in the Rome quarters to Stan Wawrinka. After such strong runs in each of those tournaments in the past, his ranking had slipped to No7, his lowest in a decade.

And while most of his rivals still considered Nadal one of the favourites for his 10th title, he insisted ahead of the tournament that he could only try to continue his improvement: “Obviously I didn’t have the best clay season the last couple of years, I had more up and downs.

“Even so, I was able to play semi-finals in Master 1000, another final, and one quarter-final. It’s not terrible, but if we compare with other years, obviously looks bad, no? That’s always gonna happen when you achieve a lot in the past… But the positive thing is… since January, day after day, I think I improved a lot. I am a little bit more consistent, I feel. Let’s try my best here. I think I can do it. And if not, it’s important for me to keep playing in the season with no injuries, and we will see where we finish.”

The young, spirited Frenchman certainly gave the crowd and Nadal value for money. After losing the first set 6-2 in half an hour, conceding a break of serve three times though making one break back, Halys played more confidently in the second, and with aggression and variety. He worked an early break point but could not convert it, and in a flash, Nadal had turned on a couple of blistering forehand winners to break for a 4-2 lead.

The Spaniard did not let go of his advantage, serving to love not once but twice to seal the set, 6-3. He had made must one unforced error in the set and dropped only two points on serve.

With the crowd roaring on their encouragement, Halys did an even better job in the third set, but so solid was Nadal’s serving and defence that he could not work so much as a single break point. Nadal would make just four more errors and lose only two more points on his first serve in sealing the match, 6-4.

Nadal did, not surprisingly, have nothing but praise for the teenager who had acquitted himself so well, proving himself another bright prospect for the already-strong French tennis nation.

“I think he played aggressive. I think he played well. He played obviously with some mistakes, but when you want to risk on every single ball, then the mistakes are there. Tennis is moving that way. Younger, aggressive. And the tour in general are moving to hit the ball stronger and quicker, going for winners all the time. So when he wants to play like this and he put the balls in, I cannot do nothing.

“I think I changed good directions with my forehand, very good forehand down the line. After the first three games, I start moving the ball better. I am happy the way that I played, no? Is the first match and I played enough well.”

That is as close as the perfectionist Nadal could come to satisfaction, despite so few errors and such a strong serving performance.

For now, too, he moves to 67-1 at the French Open and one step closer to that 10th Paris title. Not that his job become any easier. He next plays compatriot Nicolas Almagro, who beat Alexandr Dolgopolov in a closely-contested four sets after two and a half hours, 6-3, 2-6, 6-4, 7-6(6). Almagro scored his only win in 13 meetings over Nadal last year, on Barcelona’s clay, and has won all 12 of his titles on the red stuff—and reached all nine of his finals there, too.

Also in this quarter topped by Djokovic, there were wins for No15 seed Kevin Anderson over Tim Smyczek, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2, and for No20 seed Richard Gasquet over Germain Gigounon, 6-3, 6-4, 6-0.

In the bottom quarter of this half, headed by Murray, there were also few upsets. Ninth seed Marin Cilic, playing his first Grand Slam match since winning the 2014 US Open, beat Robin Haase, 6-2, 6-4, 6-2. The No23 seed Leonardo Mayer survived the tall 21-year-old Jiri Vesely, 3-6, 7-6(6), 6-3, 5-7, 6-2.

Another young, tall and powerful talent, Jerzy Janowicz, beat Maxime Hamou, 6-7(4), 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, while Geneva finalist, Joao Sousa, beat Vasek Pospisil, 6-3, 7-6(5), 6-1 and will next play Murray himself.

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