PARIS – Winning a match against Rafael Nadal at the French Open is downright difficult, of course: He went into Tuesday with a 100-2 career record at the place.
Just taking a set off the guy is nearly impossible, too. So when Alexei Popyrin twice came within a point of doing so during their encounter at Court Philippe Chatrier on Day 3 of this year's tournament, the enormity of it all was just too much for the King of Clay's 21-year-old opponent.
“Choked,” was Popyrin's self-assessment.
Nadal began his bid for a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title — and 14th at the French Open, adding to a mark he keeps adding to, year after year — with a, yes, straight-set victory over Popyrin.
The 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (3) triumph increased Nadal's run to 26 consecutive sets in Paris, dating to the last two of the 2019 final that he won against Dominic Thiem. Nadal won all 21 sets he played across seven matches at the 2020 French Open, which was played in the autumnal chill of September-October after being postponed from its usual calendar spot because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I feel like I was a little bit scared to get injured, no? But that’s past,” Nadal said Tuesday. “This year ... everybody is much more comfortable.”
Back to its usual May-June schedule, the tournament has been held more under the sort of conditions Mallorca's Nadal enjoys — the temperature was around 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26 Celsius) on Tuesday under a sun-filled sky, although rain was in Wednesday's forecast — and he played rather well against Popyrin until a shaky patch in the third set.
Nadal trailed 5-2, and Popyrin was a point from ending the set streak while serving at 5-3, 40-30.
But Popyrin couldn't close the deal there, double-faulting to deuce. Then came another set point for the 63rd-ranked Australian at Ad-In, but he shanked a leaping overhead, nearly hitting Nadal with the ball several feet beyond the baseline.
Two wild forehand misses later, Popyrin had given away the game. And soon enough, the match belonged to Nadal, too.
“The moment got to my head a little bit. You know, taking a set off Nadal, especially in French Open, is not the easiest thing to do,” Popyrin said.
And then, with a smile, he added: “The guy is solid. What can I say?”
Indeed, it's not as if Nadal was feeling any sort of pressure at that juncture of the match. His mindset, he said afterward, essentially amounted to: "So what if I dropped that set? I already was up by two to none."
“Match point is a different story,” he said. “You lose the point, you’re (done). You are back home. Here, you lose the set. OK. We are playing best-of-five. The other player needs to win two more sets to beat you, and I know I'm going to be there fighting for every single point.”
As good as Nadal is at Roland Garros, he is seeded only No. 3, because the French Open sticks strictly to the rankings to determine its seedings. That left him behind No. 2 Daniil Medvedev, a two-time Grand Slam finalist, and No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who owns 18 major titles.
Djokovic improved to 17-0 in first-round matches at Roland Garros by beating Tennys Sandgren 6-2, 6-4, 6-2 in just under two hours on Tuesday night.
Djokovic saved all six break points he faced and compiled a total of 33 winners in the last match of the clay-court tournament’s first round.
The top-ranked woman, Ash Barty, played much earlier in the day — and it looked for a bit as if her stay in the draw would not last long.
Elsewhere, Petra Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon champion, pulled out of the tournament with an injured ankle, while No. 7 seed Andrey Rublev lost his opening match in five sets.
Dealing with a left hip problem, Barty struggled through a 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 win against 70th-ranked American Bernarda Pera in her first match in Paris since winning the 2019 title.
Barty decided not to try to defend her title last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, choosing instead to remain home in Australia.
In the buildup to this French Open, she played 13 matches on clay, winning 11. But she was forced to retire in the quarterfinals in Rome in May because of an injury to her right arm, raising concerns about her condition ahead of the trip to Paris.
“I just keep fighting, I just keep trying,” Barty said after improving her three-set match record to 12-2 this year.
AP Tennis Writer Howard Fendrich in Washington contributed.