It usually takes only a couple of matches for Rafael Nadal to remind everyone why he is always favourite to win here – not just the titles, which he has won an extraordinary 11 times, but points, games, sets and matches.
And so it was on day four of the 2019 French Open when he beat his second German qualifier called Yannick, Herr Maden joining Herr Hanfmann (who took only six games off the Spaniard in the first round). Maden, ranked 114 in the world, didn’t do much better. Nadal, extended only in a tricky third set when his concentration dipped, took 2hr 9min to win 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 on a warm Wednesday afternoon.
Maden became the eighth qualifier to lose to the tournament’s eternal champion, all in straight sets. They are sparring partners – with more to come. Nadal next plays David Goffin who defeated Miomir Kecmanovic, 6-4, 6-2, 6-3, and has lost against Nadal three times out of three on clay. As the Belgian said later: “This is the only tournament that is the best-of-five sets on clay, and therefore it is probably the ultimate challenge.”
Pondering who might have a chance of beating Nadal here, John McEnroe observed: “He looks unbeatable, virtually, but he is about to turn 33.” He picked out only a handful of candidates. “Djokovic, Thiem, Fognini – but they’re in the other side of the draw. Federer on clay? Obviously he respects him. Wawrinka? If he could get his act together, and he seems like he’s heading in the right direction. Tsitsipas has made a lot of progress, I guess you could put him in the mix. That would be about it. I think Djokovic is the only guy who makes him shudder a bit. Still, you’ve got to be 60-40 for Nadal.”
Only two opponents among 88 had inconvenienced him coming into these championships: Novak Djokovic beat him in the quarter-finals in 2015, and Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009. Indeed, the King of Paris has lost only 22 of 297 sets he has played at his favourite tournament.
He was mildly irritated when reminded he had served a double‑fault three times in the third set against Maden, and said: “OK, I made a few mistakes. What do you want me to say? I won 6-1, 6-2, 6-4. The reality is that when I was able to break again, I was able to win. It’s also part of playing the best of five sets, because they are longer games and longer matches, and it’s more difficult to keep focused. He played well. He did a few good things. He changed strategy, and he became more aggressive.”
Federer eased further into his clay comeback after an absence of four years when he beat Oscar Otte, a German in the main draw as a lucky loser for the second year in a row. At 114 in the world, he needed more than luck against Federer, who beat him 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 to record his 67th win here – second only to Nadal. A strong candidate for sports trivia nugget of the week is that Otte’s sister, Luisa, is marrying the son of the former England batsman Mark Benson.
Federer, meanwhile, moves on to play Casper Ruud – whose father, Christian, played here when the Swiss made his debut as a teenager in 1999. Nobody else in the current field was in that draw. Ruud the younger earned his third‑round place by beating the 29th seed Matteo Berrettini 6-4, 7-5, 6-3. Ruud said his father and Federer “practised together once, he told me, but he never played him”. He added: “So I will be the first Ruud to say that I was able to play him, so that’s a bit funny.”
Also through in style is Stan Wawrinka, who demolished the young Chilean prospect Cristian Garin 6-1, 6-4, 6-0 in 1hr 40min. In that quarter on this side of the draw, the unseeded Bolivian Hugo Dellien, playing above his 86 ranking, twisted his ankle yet still took the first set against Stefanos Tsitsipas, the sixth seed many believe will go deep in the draw. The Greek will need to start more quickly than this, though, and only came to life in the second before going wining 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 7-5 in 2hr 49min.
Tsitsipas complained later that the clay on the new Simonne-Mathieu court was “much slower than Chatrier”, which might be an issue for those players moving from one to the other in the rest of the fortnight. He said: “I was struggling with my slides. The court doesn’t have much clay on it, so it’s very dry and gluey. My fitness coach told me the fastest serve today was 180kmh, which is very rare to see.”