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By Richard Pagliaro | Tuesday, June 1, 2021

 
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Rafael Nadal saved a couple of set points stopping Alexei Popyrin 6-3, 6-2, 7-6(3) raising his Roland Garros record to 101-2. Our top takeaways from Rafa's return.

Photo credit: Adam Pretty/Getty

The artful aggression of Rafael Nadal in forehand flight is now a major monument.

Roland Garros unveiled a striking steel statue of the 13-time champion whipping his trademark forehand as a tribute to the king of clay.

More: Osaka Withdraws From RG

The reigning Roland Garros champion launched his quest for a men's record 21st major title playing tennis terminator in Paris today.

Nadal denied two set points in the third set defusing explosive Alexei Popyrin 6-3, 6-2, 7-6(3) to charge into the Roland Garros second round for the 17th time in as many appearances.



It's Nadal's 29th straight win in Paris as he improved his remarkable Roland Garros record to 101-2.

Our Top 5 Takeaways from Nadal's powerful opening-round performance.

1. Bigger Bite

Thirteen times Nadal has ended this tournament chomping on the silver Coupe des Mousquetaires awarded to the Roland Garros champion.

Today, his twisting topspin forehand seemed to trampoline even higher off the terre battue than it did last fall when he took the title without surrendering a set.

The lanky Popyrin is 6'5" yet still found himself fighting off some shoulder-high topspin from Nadal. Remember the speculation at the start of the 2020 Roland Garros that cooler fall conditions would diminish the dramatic bounce Nadal produces off the red clay and make him more vulnerable?




"I feel like I was a little bit scared to get injured [last year], no? But that's past," Nadal said today. "This year, we come back to a normal date.

"So, yeah, warm conditions. I think for everybody is much more comfortable to play under these conditions than in the other ones. That's what we are used to play here in Roland Garros. Yeah, I am happy for that."

Nadal was stinging his forehand with bigger bite off the clay, which is obviously a good sign for his opener.

2. Number Cruncher

Bearing the unfamiliar No. 3 seed next to his name, Nadal played with first-rate vigor behind his first serve. The Spaniard served 63 percent, won 81 percent of first-serve points and repeatedly slid the wide serve on the ad side to create openings for his forehand strikes.

This is Nadal's last match as a 34-year-old—he celebrates his 35th birthday on Thursday—and he's chasing the biggest number of his career. Nadal knows winning his 21st Grand Slam title in Paris will transform him from king of clay to Grand Slam king and that poses a pressure unlike any he's faced before. So getting through an explosive opponent in straight-sets today is a strong start.

Tennis Express

Nadal raised his clay-court record in best-of-five set matches to 126-2.

3. Space Shrinker

Court Philippe Chatrier offers the most running room of any major center court. Nadal covers it with GPS-style command shrinking open space for opponents.

Popyrin knew he had to play close to the lines to have any shot of snatching a set from the man who swept him in Madrid. Holding set points serving for the third set at 5-3, the Aussie stepped over the line.

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Nadal's presence and prescience spooked the Aussie into a double fault on the first set point and a netted smash on the second. It also illustrated a fundamental challenge most mortals confront facing Nadal on Chatrier: it's a mission impossible to hit through him, which can lead to even greater risk and magnified stress on each shot.

4. Muscle Memory

Remember last month when Nadal couldn't find his second serve bowing to Andrey Rublev in Monte-Carlo?

Today, Rublev tumbled out of the tournament and Nadal turned in a vintage king of clay performance looking fit and focused against an opponent 13 years his junior.

Nadal improved to 15-2 on dirt in 2021 and hasn't lost a set at Roland Garros since the second set of his 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 win over Dominic Thiem in the 2019 final. He will ride a streak of 26 straight sets into the second round.




Most importantly, Nadal delivered his trademark qualities playing with passion and purpose and hitting his forehand with more menacing intent as the match progressed.

5. Rafa-Richard Reunion

The City of Light could see a night match between childhood rivals Nadal and Richard Gasquet.

In an all-French opener, Gasquet deconstructed wild card Hugo Gaston 6-1, 6-4, 6-2.


If you view every match as a movie, facing Nadal has been a horror show for Gasquet.

Nadal has blitzed Gasquet posting a 16-0 record in their head-to-head series, including surrendering just seven games the last time they met at the 2018 Roland Garros.

 

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