Rafael Nadal opens French Open campaign with straight-sets success

Rafael Nadal came within one point of losing his first set at the French Open since 2019 as he opened his campaign for a 14th title in Paris with victory over Alexei Popyrin.

The young Australian went for broke against the third seed and had two set points at 5-3 in the third only to double fault on the first and shank a smash on the second.

That proved to be his final chance to land a meaningful blow, and Nadal went on to record a 6-3 6-2 7-6 (3) victory, setting up a second-round clash with old rival Richard Gasquet.

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The Spaniard was not unduly worried, saying: “Of course I don’t want to lose the set at all, but that’s part of the game.

“You face a player who’s decided to go for every shot, so you are in trouble. If he’s having success like he did with his serve, then it’s difficult to have breaks, and then you are in a tricky position.

“But here, especially on clay, the matches are best-of-five, the matches are long, and it’s difficult to hold that kind of level for such a long time playing with this kind of risk.”

Novak Djokovic played under the lights in an empty stadium
Novak Djokovic and Tennys Sandgren play under the lights in an empty stadium (Christophe Ena/AP)

Novak Djokovic was given night-time billing against American Tennys Sandgren and wasted no time wrapping up a 6-2 6-4 6-2 victory to set up a second-round clash with Pablo Cuevas.

The world number one said: “I’m honoured to be the first men’s match in the night session ever at Roland Garros. It was quite different I must say, a little bit strange to play under the lights.

“In front of an empty stadium unfortunately but I’m looking forward to the next match, hopefully I can have some crowd on the court as well.”

The men’s draw lost its second top-eight player, with seventh seed Andrey Rublev joining Dominic Thiem in heading through the exit door.

Alexei Popyrin had two sets points against Rafael Nadal in the third set
Alexei Popyrin had two sets points against Rafael Nadal in the third set (Christophe Ena/AP)

The Russian had reached the quarter-finals at the last three grand slams and is
having another strong season. He fought back from two sets down to level the match against Jan-Lennard Struff but it was the German who came through 6-3 7-6 (6) 4-6 3-6 6-4.

The most crowd-pleasing moment of the day came on Court Suzanne Lenglen where Gael Monfils, who has been desperately short of wins since the start of the pandemic, defeated Albert Ramos-Vinolas 1-6 7-6 (6) 6-4 6-4.

It was almost possible to imagine that life was normal again as the crowd roared on its home favourite, with Monfils claiming just his second victory since last February.

The 34-year-old, one of tennis’ great showmen, broke down after losing his first-round match at the Australian Open but the emotions were very different here.

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“It was incredible,” said Monfils. “Even though it was not like a full crowd, it was enough to make a decent spirit. I could feel their energy. I could feel that every day I’m working to be on the big stage like that.

“The main thing that makes me happy is it’s been a long time since I played in front of both of my parents. My brother. So that was very big for me. I was more me, a bit more fun. It was a better Gael Monfils today.”

Toni Nadal, coach of his nephew for so many years, had the unusual experience of seeing his charge lose in the first round, with young Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime going down in four sets to Andreas Seppi.

Ninth seed Matteo Berrettini defeated Taro Daniel 6-0 6-4 4-6 6-4 while Diego Schwartzman, Alex De Minaur and Australian Open semi-finalist Aslan Karatsev, who is making his debut in the Roland Garros main draw, also won.