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'Choked': Nadal's opponent flubs set points at French Open

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Spain's Rafael Nadal serves to Australia's Alexei Popyrin during their first round match on day three of the French Open tennis tournament at Roland Garros in Paris, France, Tuesday, June 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

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.