Nadal marches on with demolition of Bautista Agut
Rafael Nadal belatedly celebrated his 31st birthday with another crushing triumph, this time over Roberto Bautista Agut, en route to the quarter-finals of Roland-Garros.
Rafael Nadal must feel as if he can do no wrong at the moment as he rides a crashing wave of torrential success about as spectacular as anything in his absolute pomp. Everything he’s doing seems to be turning to gold.
On Saturday night, the great man celebrated his 31st birthday along with his family, watching on TV as his beloved Real Madrid won their 12th European Cup, and the following day, he woke up refreshed to make another pulverising step towards his 10th Roland-Garros title, reaching the quarter-finals with a familiar crushing, straight-sets victory. Just another weekend in Nadal paradise…
This time, his luckless victim was fellow Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut, a top-20 player who always gives 110 per cent of himself. The trouble was, not even 200 per cent of himself would have been enough to cope with Nadal in his current mood as the world No.4 crunched his way into the last eight with a 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 victory.
The triumph, carved out in a trouble-free one hour and 50 minutes, meant that Nadal, yet to even be remotely threatened in a single set here, has now dropped just 20 games in four matches en route to the quarters.
That’s not quite as astonishing as the 19 he gave up on reaching this same stage here in 2012 but it surely tells of a man playing perhaps nearly as well as ever into his fourth decade.
And here’s the strange thing on Sunday - and perhaps the most worrying thing for the rest of the field; he can, and already has, played better than this at this year’s tournament.
The perfectionist in him appeared to have been chuntering on court that he needed to improve in certain areas but afterwards Nadal reckoned he would have to be “very arrogant” if he wasn’t satisfied with such an assured victory.
He served poorly in the first set and will doubtless feel he must improve on the total of 23 unforced errors he made. Yet it is still a measure of how matchless Nadal is on the red stuff here that even with Bautista Agut never once appearing to give up hope of salvaging something as he scurried around the court chasing hopeless causes, the No.17 seed was utterly overpowered and outclassed.
“I played against a very good player, and I was able to win in straight sets with very positive result,” Nadal shrugged. “So happy for that. Probably I didn't play as well as I did the other day, but I still played well, no? I played some very good shots.”
He did indeed and Bautista Agut, who had lost their only previous meeting in straight sets, must have felt a little like this contest was taking place in the nearby ‘Bullring’ No.1 Court, such was the roar of acclaim for the matador Rafael when he made his appearance on Suzanne-Lenglen Court. It was obvious who was being primed to play the bull.
“Nadal is at his best. He plays every point with great intensity and yields nothing. You try to take a few risks, and then of course you make more mistakes than usual,” sighed Bautista Agut, neatly summarising what happened next. He had needed to be at his best to remotely stand a chance but admitted he had not performed as well as usual - and this was definitely not the time to have an off-day.
When Nadal sprinted into a 2-0 lead in the opening set, it quickly looked ominous but Bautista Agut did earn a break back and, after Nadal had been given a time violation by umpire Carlos Ramos when leading 3-1, he also earned another break point - which was snuffed out.
That was just about the last smidgeon of hope Bautista Agut could cling to until the third set when Nadal was again given a violation for being too slow between points and Bautista Agut earned two more break points for a 2-0 lead.
Alas for him, Nadal made the chances evaporate with merciless swiftness as he went on to take his unreal record at Roland-Garros to 76 wins and just two losses.
"Nadal is at his best. He plays every point with great intensity and yields nothing. You try to take a few risks, and then of course you make more mistakes than usual."
So who can beat him? Bautista Agut is not sure anyone can now. “If I had to bet, I'd probably place my bet on Rafa,” he said.
Next up, Nadal faces Pablo Carreno Busta, another of the powerful and improving Spanish armada who earned a magnificent five-set win over Milos Raonic. “I’ve not played against Pablo but he’s developed really well and improved. He's a friend whom I appreciate very much, someone I really like. He's a good person. I think he deserves it,” said Nadal.
As he reflected on his birthday on Saturday he reckoned he hadn’t had much cake because of what lay ahead today. “I had lunch with family in the hotel, so that was great, I was relaxed. During the evening was not celebration. It was a moment to see the football.”
So, what was his take on Real Madrid’s win over Juventus? “It's a historic moment. I'm happy, very happy. The first half was so tough but the second half was extraordinary. What else can I say? (To be able to win) I think that you have to go through tough moments, head winds.”
Here was a champion who would know that fact better than anyone.