Nadal v Norrie: Things we learned

 - Chris Oddo

Defending champion Nadal was pushed at times but rose to the challenge to storm into the second week

Rafael Nadal, Roland Garros 2021, third round© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Rafael Nadal traipsed out to Court Suzanne-Lenglen - where he has never lost - for a Day 7 tussle with Great Britain’s Cameron Norrie, and sped away with a 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 victory. 

The world No.3, who will face Italy's Jannik Sinner in the round of 16 in Paris, was challenged at times in his third career meeting against the world No.45, but he was able to pull away from the middle of the second set, winning 11 of the final 14 games to improve his head-spinning Roland-Garros record to 103-2.

Here's what we learned from Nadal's latest triumph on the terre battue.

The break game was on song

One thing we've learned about Nadal over the years? He has many ways to beat you on the red clay.

On Saturday, when the serve wasn't working in the second set, Nadal relied on his world-class return game to keep Norrie at bay and ensure an uncomplicated victory in round three.

After surrendering a break of serve in each of his first two contests - against Alexei Popyrin in round one and Richard Gasquet in round two - Nadal buttoned down things on serve at an extremely high level in the first set. 

But when the serve let him down in set two, Nadal was resourceful and relied on his return game to gain the edge. Norrie broke Nadal twice - for 2-0 and 3-1 - but each time the Brit moved ahead Nadal answered. After the Spaniard finally levelled the set at 3-all, he broke again for 4-3 and pulled away from there. 

Nadal said it wasn't the actual return that paid dividends, but the willingness to keep forcing Norrie into uncomfortable positions.

"I don't think I have been returning unbelievable today," confessed the 35-year-old. "I just returned okay. But then I was solid from the baseline to put one more ball in and to make him play.

"Always is difficult to confirm the break. And that's what I tried to do, no? To put him in a tough position to let him play one more ball and tough balls to confirm that break, and I was happy to have both times to break back. Have been huge confidence for me...

"So after that, I can't say the match was over, because never is [it] over, but after that second set I felt that I had a very important advantage."

The King and his outrageous numbers

Not only has Nadal won through to the second week without the loss of a single set, he hasn’t dropped a set in Paris since the 2019 final against Dominic Thiem.

The four-time defending Roland-Garros champion stretched his streak of consecutive sets won to 32 against Norrie.

Remarkably, Nadal has only needed a tiebreaker three times to win those 32 sets, and he has only dropped five games in a set on two other occasions. In 14 of the 32 sets, he has dropped two games or less.

The Mallorcan has now won 33 consecutive matches at Roland-Garros, a streak that dates back to his loss to Novak Djokovic in the 2015 quarter-finals.

Nadal's current streak is six wins shy of his longest streak of 39 on Parisian clay, which lasted from 2010 through his quarter-final loss to Djokovic in 2015.

Not only is Nadal the only man to win more than 30 consecutive matches at Roland-Garros, he has achieved the feat three times now in his career. He also won 31 straight matches at Roland-Garros from 2005 through his round of 16 loss to Robin Soderling in 2009.

Rafael Nadal, Roland Garros 2021, third round© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Title hopes on track

Though it wasn't Nadal's most imperious effort, the No.3 seed can be pleased with the fact that he was able to win easily, without spending much time on court.

He needed just two hours and seven minutes to complete the victory and through three rounds he has only had to log a total of six hours and 44 minutes on court.

"I found a way to be through, and that's the most important thing for me," Nadal said. "I think I played for moments some good tennis. For moments I can do it a little bit better, but I was able to win in straight sets and that's so important for me."

Nadal is one of five players remaining in the men's singles draw to have won at least 90 per cent of his service games (38/42) and he has managed to win 57 per cent of his baseline points. He has broken serve in 17 of 40 return games in his three matches in Paris.

"For moments, I need to do things better. But I am confident that I can do it," he assured.

Another Sinner showdown looms

Next up for Nadal? A familiar foe in Italy's Jannik Sinner.

Last autumn, Sinner became the first man since Nadal in 2005 to reach the Roland-Garros quarter-finals on his main draw debut, and he even tested the Spaniard when he arrived there, serving for the first set before he fell 7-6(4), 6-4, 6-1 in two hours and 49 minutes. Though he was the heavy underdog, it was a loss that Sinner didn't take lightly.

"I had chances in the first and second set. Unfortunately I didn't use them," Sinner said at the time. "I have a lot of respect for him. At the end you want to win. You go on court to play your tennis with your personality. You go on court trying to play your tennis, trying to win obviously."

In the last 16, the pair will meet again in Paris, for the third time in less than a year. Nadal also defeated Sinner two weeks ago in Rome, 7-5, 6-4.

The 13-time Paris champion knows he'll be in for a big challenge against the rising 19-year-old, especially facing him a round earlier than he did last year.

"He's young. He's improving every week," Nadal said. "He has big shots. Gonna be a tough one. I need to be solid. I need to be aggressive too, because if not it's very difficult. I need to make him play from tough positions, and I can't make a lot of mistakes, no?

"Jannik is not the best fourth round, without a doubt, no, he's a dangerous one. He's young. He's a great player. We know each other well. So let's see."