Day 2 - Match of the day session: Rafa looks for magic

Approaching the end of his career, the great champion of Paris faces his greatest challenge yet in Alexander Zverev

 - Alix Ramsay

On paper, it does not look good. Rafael Nadal, the mighty Rafa, the master of Roland-Garros from the moment he first stepped on the clay of Paris and the man who has lost just three matches here since 2005, has played only 15 matches in the past 18 months due to a hip injury. And he lost eight of those. 

Alexander Zverev has played 37 matches this year and comes into today’s encounter as the champion of Rome and a semi-finalist at the Australian Open. He is 10 years younger than Nadal, five inches taller and injury free. No, it does not look good. And yet this is Roland-Garros; this is Nadal’s “magical place” as he puts it.

The 14-time champion was in cheery mood as he faced a packed interview room on Saturday – and he was realistic about the task that lay ahead of him. His last match was a straight-sets thrashing at the hands of Hubert Hurkacz in Rome but, still, Rafa was hopeful.

“It's a super-tough first round,” he said. “Maybe I go there and I repeat the disaster of Rome. It's a possibility; I don't want to hide that. But in the practices, without a doubt I improved. Especially in terms of movements. So I don't feel the limitations that I felt in Rome in terms of running, both sides, so that's a lot for me.

"I probably will say this is the first week since I come back playing tennis that I am able to run the proper way without having a lot of limitations. That's encourages me.”

The simple fact is that Nadal is enjoying himself. He is slowly – very slowly – feeling better mentally and physically with every passing week and even if the prospect of playing the world No.4 is daunting, it is one that he relishes.

What might dent his optimism is the thought that Zverev relishes it, too.


The last time the two met, Zverev was playing the match of his life until he twisted his ankle and tore three ligaments. Now he wants to play that match again and finish it properly. And despite Nadal’s injury problems, he expects the Spaniard to be at his best. 

“In my mind, I'm going to play peak Rafa Nadal,” Zverev said simply. “I wanted to play Rafa again in my career because I didn't want my last memory of me playing against him to be me leaving the court in a wheelchair. I think he's excited and I'm excited for it.”



Five to watch:

Court Philipp Chatrier, first match: Ons Jabeur vs Sachia Vickery

Over the years, Jabeur has learned to expect the unexpected. In the past two years, she has reached three Grand Slam finals; so far this season, her best result is a quarter-final in Madrid. It was the only time this year that she had won back-to-back matches.

No matter: she is ready for whatever life throws at her. “The most important thing for me is to keep that belief and know that I can do anything,” the world No.9 said.

“I hope I can feel and use the experience from the other Grand Slams to hopefully be here in the second week and go as far as I can, even though I know I'm not one of the favourites, which might be a good thing.”

Court Suzanne-Lenglen, first match: Jannik Sinner vs Christopher Eubanks 

Playing Eubanks is not easy at the best of times – reading that walloping serve is tricky – and these are not the best of times for Sinner. He has not played since injuring his hip in Madrid last month and it was touch and go whether he would be fit enough to play here.

With no match play and limited practice behind him, the Australian Open champion is trying to be as positive as he can.

“Every match you play, you still start from 0-0, and the better player wins. It's very easy, the sport,” he said. “Hopefully I can stay here longer than last year. I made second round last year. Let's see what I can do this year.”


Court Philippe-Chatrier, second match: Iga Swiatek vs Leolia Jeanjean

Swiatek is the best women's player in the world and is chasing her fourth Roland-Garros title. She is the woman everyone wants to beat.

As she settles into life in Paris, Swiatek is looking as comfortable as any player with a target on their back could. Her clay court run into Roland-Garros could hardly have gone better with titles in Madrid and Rome. She is feeling fit and healthy and has an improved serve, which has been a work in progress for the past few months.

She starts her campaign on Monday against Leolia Jeanjean, the world No.148 from France, who was playing in the smaller ITF events as Swiatek was sweeping all before her in Spain and Italy.

Court Suzanne-Lenglen, third match: Coco Gauff vs Julia Avdeeva

Changing your serve seems to be all the rage on the WTA Tour. Gauff, like Swiatek, has been tinkering and tweaking the shot on her run into Paris and as she prepares for what she hopes will be another deep run here, she is pleased with the results so far (she reached the Rome final just over a week ago).

“I feel like it's getting better,” she said, “but it's obviously a shot that I feel is tough to change. Sometimes it's tough to push yourself to do the uncomfortable things which you know in the long term are better for you.”

If she is this good now, imagine what she will be like when she feels comfortable.

Court Simonne-Matthieu, fourth match: Dominik Koepfer vs Daniil Medvedev

You have to admire Daniil Medvedev’s honesty. Professional athletes are masters of the evasive answer; they never want to give too much away. But not Daniil.

He is a US Open champion, he is a former world No.1 and he has reached five further Grand Slam finals. So his ambitions here are? “So far in Roland Garros if I go through first round, I start to play well and can do good results,” he said, referring to the two times in seven attempts he made it past the opening round, “but a lot of times I lost first round. Big motivation to pass the first round, a big step.”