And, on the third day of the French Open, the two tournament title favourites emerged int the Paris sunshine to show the world why they were the ones expected to dominate the 2021 edition of the clay court grand slam.
That's part of the game, that's how the ranking works. There is no sport that is more fair than tennis for that,. Fair enough, I am the third, Medvedev is the second, Novak is the first. No problem with that.
It was left to Rafa Nadal, the player who has established himself as the King of Clay and already collected 13 titles at Roland Garros, to perform first. Scheduled to play on the Court Philippe Chatrier in the afternoon, he faced the big serving Aussie 21-year-old, Andrei Popyrin and quickly established a two-sets-to-love lead only to suddenly falter in the third.
The 34-year-old Mallorcan’s deadly forehand suddenly lost its sting allowing Popyrin to build up a 5-2 lead and the opportunity of taking the defending champion into a fourth.
That though, was the last thing Nadal wanted in his opening match! As is his custom, he dug deep and found the answers saving two set points before sealing the match in the tie-break 6-3 6-2 7-6(3) for his 31st straight French Open victory and his 101st overall at the event.
“Here you lose the set. Okay. We are playing best-of-five,” Nadal commented. “The other player needs to win two more sets to beat you, and I know I gonna be there fighting for every single point.
“So of course I don’t want to lose the set at all, but that’s part of the game. You face a player that he’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.”
Popyrin was well aware of his missed opportunities, not least the squandering of set points at 5-3
“I think the emotion right now is definitely disappointment,” Popyrin, world ranked 63, admitted. “Choked in that third set, could have taken to the fourth – Should have taken it to the fourth!
“We chalk this one down to experience, but I don’t want to chalk many matches down to experience much longer. I think I’m experienced enough to not choke at 5-3, 40-30, 5-3, advantage. You know, I’m disappointed with that.
“But overall I think I played a good game. I think tactically here and there it was kind of like a game of chess where he would, you know, hit a high loopy ball to the backhand and you would need to counterattack with that one. It was basically like that the whole match.”
Nadal then took the opportunity to squash and put an end to the brewing row of him being seeded three having only lost twice at Roland Garros since 2005.
Nadal insisted he has no problem with the seeding system which placed him behind world number two Daniil Medvedev, the Russian who, at the time, hadn’t won a match at the French!
“That’s part of the game, that’s how the ranking works. There is no sport that is more fair than tennis for that,” insisted Nadal.
“Fair enough, I am the third, Medvedev is the second, Novak is the first. No problem with that.
“I am here to try my best, and when I am the third, you know that you’re gonna have the chance to be in the same part of the draw as the number one or the number two.
“So this time (I) was with the part of the draw of the number one. But (there) still remains a lot for me to face that match, semi-finals.”
And concluded: “I just won my first match, something that I’m happy with.”
Nadal will now meet the 34-year-old Richard Gasquet in the second round, following the French veteran’s 6-1 6-4 6-2 victory over fellow countryman Hugo Gaston, a wild card entry. The meeting is scheduled for Thursday, the 3rd June, when Nadal will be celebrating his 35th birthday, and it is unlikely that Gasquet will spoil those celebrations by scoring a win over the Spaniard having failed in their 16 previous meetings!
While Nadal enjoyed playing his match in front of the Covid restricted crowd of 1,000, the top seed and word number one Novak Djokovic, had the misfortune of playing in an empty Chatrier stadium during the evening session as fans were ejected to meet the 9.00 pm curfew which is also in place.
But while there were no fans, there was enough noise created by conversations within the media section for Djokovic to complain! And, as regards his performance, it was another professional display as he simply destroyed American Tennys Sandgren 6-2 6-4 6-2.
“So it was strange,” Djokovic said of the empty arena. “Honestly, but I’m also honored to be the first men’s match, night session, history of this tournament, of this court.
“I thought I played really well. Moved really well. Just overall from Rome tournament, later stages of Rome tournament until now, I’m just finding my groove on the court, striking the ball well. Very pleased with the way I am feeling and playing on the court.
“So I’m going to try to keep that up. Obviously it’s a long shot. It’s a long tournament. But I’ll take it match by match. And physically I’m also fit. I’m as motivated as anybody.”
His next hurdle is 35-year-old Pablo Cuevas, the Uruguayan veteran who has surprisingly, never faced the Serbian before.
The emergence of the two favourites overshadowed somewhat other results as the day brought about the conclusion of the first-round matches.
Amongst those results was the surprise exit of the seventh seed, Andrey Rublev who was eliminated by Jan-Lennard Struff, the 31-year-old German who is always a danger.
He won 6-3 7-6(6) 4-6 3-6 6-4 for what was his first victory over a top-ten player and level at 2-all, their personal head-to-head record.
“It was definitely a very, very tough match,” Struff said. “I played Andrey twice this year, lost twice in three sets, played twice a very good first set but couldn’t get the job done.
“Today I managed to beat him. Was very, very close. He fought back very tough after two sets to love up for me, and very happy I won 6-4 in the fifth, and definitely it’s a huge win for me in a Grand Slam against a top-10 player. Yeah, very, very important.”
After a good clay season in which he made the Monte Carlo finals, Rublev had high hopes despite being in Nadal’s quarter.
“Of course I was thinking that I would like to come back from 2-0, but I don’t know, the fifth set I was a bit unlucky,” Rublev said. “He played that game when he broke me really well. He did I think two returns, winners, and then he had two break points and I saved them, I make it to deuce, and then he returned so hard right on the line and on the break point, full power cross-court winner return again. So was a bit unlucky.
“And then when I had a chance to break him, he played well there. So you never know what’s going to happen — if it’s going to be the same situation the next day, maybe it’ll be a different story. Maybe I would save the game and when I would have break points, I would make them.”
And in another mild upset, Italian veteran Andreas Seppi hung on to beat Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime 6-3 7-6(8) 4-6 6-4.
Former semi-finalists Gael Monfils, Marco Cecchinato and Diego Schwartzman were also winners on Day Three as were Aslan Karatsev, Alex De Minaur, Philip Kohlschreiber and Matteo Berrettini.