French Open 2016: Rafael Nadal targets record No10 on way to 30th birthday
Rafael Nadal is eyeing a record 10th French Open title in Paris this year
The defending French Open champion Stan Wawrinka came close to setting the first French Open record of the year on the first full day of play at a rain-soaked Roland Garros.
At two sets to one down against Lukas Rosol, Wawrinka looked set to become the first defending champion here to lose in the first round, but after 3hrs 11mins, he made it through.
However, on a dry but very chill Tuesday, it was the turn of two of the biggest names in tennis, top seed Novak Djokovic and No4 seed Rafael Nadal, to target two of the biggest records in tennis.
Djokovic, celebrating both his 29th birthday and his 200th week at No1 in Paris, continued his bid for a first French Open and, with it, membership of an elite group of players.
Only seven other men in tennis have completed the career Grand Slam, and Djokovic had come mighty close to joining the likes of Rod Laver, Fred Perry and Roger Federer on several occasions. In his last five appearances, he boasted three final and two semi-final finishes. Indeed as he prepared for his 2016 campaign, he was just two wins shy of 50 in the French capital.
His opener could have been little better, too, against the 95-ranked Yen-Hsun Lu, who had only played one tournament this year following elbow surgery in January. Sure enough, it took the mighty Serb a tidy hour and an half to dispense with his opponent, 6-4, 6-1, 6-1: 35 winners to just 20 errors.
But for Nadal, there was the prospect of multiple milestones at the tournament that established him as ‘the king of clay’: He won the first of his nine French Open titles as a teenager in 2005.
Now he was targeting what in men’s tennis is an unmatched 10 titles at one Major, for since that first winning trip to Paris, Nadal had lost just two matches, to Robin Soderling in 2009 and to Djokovic last year, a 70-2 run.
Should he win, he would also become the all-time title leader on clay—Roland Garros could be his 50th—and he already owns the best career match record on clay in the Open Era, a 363-34 mark.
But of course Nadal has not been a one-trick pony: He has accumulated 14 Grand Slams through the decade since his first in Paris, and now stands at just two match-wins short of 200 in Grand Slam play and six short of 800 in his career.
The statistics, then, keep piling up despite a dip in his results, confidence and rankings after injury and illness problems through much of 2014 and a slow return to form and fitness during 2015.
But this year in Monte-Carlo, he won his first Masters in almost two years and was back at No5 after being at No10 less than a year ago. With Roger Federer’s withdrawal from Roland Garros, he nabbed a valuable No4 seeding, and then also picked up a straightforward opening match.
The Spaniard played the world No100 Sam Groth who had only one clay match-win to his name and had never won a match at Roland Garros, and the imbalance in their back-stories was writ large in the scoreline.
The big-hitting, big-serving Groth was certainly not helped by the cold conditions here, but even so, Nadal’s progress was impressive. He did not face a break point, 6-1, 6-1, 6-1, to sail through in 1hr 20mins, lost just five points on his serve, 40/45, and hit 25 winners to a remarkable three unforced errors.
Nadal is one of the most overly modest players on the tour when it comes to assessing his own performances, but even he admitted that it had been a good start.
“It’s obvious that was a good start for me. The most important thing that I had to do today I did well, [that] was the return, and then I was playing with not many mistakes.
“I think it’s obvious that my opponent plays better in faster surfaces. But in general I think I played a solid match.”
If Nadal reaches his appointed place in the semi-finals—and his next opponent Facundo Bagnis, should certainly not pose any problems—he will celebrate it with his 30th birthday. He was asked before the tournament what he felt about that age milestone. With a quizzical expression, he replied:
“I’m not feeling old. Is true that I had a lot of years here on the tour [16 years, to be precise] but in terms of mentality and in terms of life I feel young. That’s it.
“You know, nobody can stop time. That’s not a good thing, but at the same time, I am happy with my life. I enjoyed all these years on the tour, and I hope to keep enjoying the next couple of years.”
And of his favourite tournament, he said simply: “It’s true that I had a lot of success here and it’s true that I like the tournament. I like the organisation. I feel very comfortable with all the staff here. It feel a little bit like home because I have a great relationship with all of them, and that makes the event even more special for me.
“It’s always a special feeling when you’re able to come back to such a beautiful and important place. But especially for me, because it’s the most important place in my career without a doubt. If I am playing well, I know I can do good things.
“I hope to continue playing well here. That’s all.”
Perhaps 18 months ago, as he returned to the tour following back and wrist problems and surgery to his appendix, after he faced losses in unexpected tournaments to unexpected opponents and saw his ranking slip with his confidence, his chances of again being regarded as a favourite to pick up his 10th French Open title looked optimistic.
Not so now.