Quest for 13: Rafa ticks the first box in Paris

 - Chris Oddo

King of Clay hits the ground running in 16th campaign with decisive victory over Gerasimov

Rafael Nadal, Roland Garros 2020, first round©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Those who watch the great Rafael Nadal ply his trade on the terre battue in Paris are aware of the history he makes with each new victory.

Be it the untouchable nature of his body of work, the invincible aura he has created, or the milestones that pile up as high as the dome of the Sacre-Coeur with each passing title, he is not not one to dwell on his mythic status, or even take comfort in it. 

For the 12-time champion - who defeated Egor Gerasimov of Belarus, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2, for his 94th career win at Roland-Garros on Monday - the quest is steeped firmly in the present.

“I’m going to practise every single day and play the matches with the most positive attitude possible,” he said on court after his victory. “It’s true that it’s a different Roland-Garros, it’s completely different than what we are used to, the meteorological conditions are very challenging, but here we are to try our best, and for me this year is as special as every one that I am here in Roland-Garros." 

Nadal served well from the start on Monday, and only surrendered a single break. That came only after the No.2 seed had raced out to a two sets lead. 

In the third set, after Gerasimov broke to lead 2-0, Nadal responded and reeled off the next six games to lock up victory in a crisp two hours and five minutes.

“The only thing I can do is just stay positive, do my job, try my best every single day,” Nadal said. “That's what I did since I arrived here - practised with the right attitude, being positive, and that's what I did today in the match.” 

Nadal improves to 94-2 lifetime at Roland-Garros, and sets up a second-round battle with American Mackenzie McDonald, the world No.236. Like all of Nadal’s matches in the first week at Roland-Garros, the mission is clear: Find the mojo. 

In a typical clay-court season, with four tournaments across Europe under his belt, the task would be simpler. 

But this year, with a shortened clay-court season, and a disappointing quarter-final loss to Diego Schwartzman at Rome just two weeks ago, Nadal knows he is up against it more than any time before. The coronavirus pandemic has taken a big swath of the 2020 season and Nadal feels he is still, in some ways, getting caught up. 

“It is a process that I have to keep working [on],” he said. “Six months without playing a single tennis match is not easy. I said in Rome when I played the first two matches well, I said, ‘OK, don't believe things are going to be like this.’ I know how difficult are the comebacks.”

As Nadal moves on, another victim is left to ponder the experience of facing the vaunted Spaniard at the venue he has ruled since he stormed to his first title in 2005. A bit of a late bloomer, 27-year-old Gerasimov had won each of the three first-round matches he had played at the Grand Slam level. 

Then, in 2020, he drew Nadal at Roland-Garros. So much for that streak.  

“I was surprised, because we were looking at the draw online, and it was like getting near the end of the draw and I was thinking ‘Maybe they withdrew me or something happened', because my surname didn’t come,” Gerasimov said after the match. “And then in the last second, boom.” 

Gerasimov thinks Nadal is in solid form despite being slightly short of match play on clay this year. 

“He’s fighting. He’s fighting for every shot,” he said. “It’s so tough to make a winner against him. So this is the toughest thing.” 

Nadal believes he still has a lot to improve over the Paris fortnight, but he has experience on his side, and the unique self-belief of a 12-time Roland-Garros champion. 

He liked some things about his game on Monday, and other things not so much. 

“I was playing some good points. I did some good forehands, winners down the line, that's a key shot for me,” he said. “And then I had to play a little bit longer. I played sometimes too short. But in general terms, that's a normal first match of Roland Garros, no? Coming with the situation that I am coming from. 

“I am happy, honestly. I did the things that I had to do. I didn't expect much more. I didn't expect less.”