PARIS (Reuters) – Rafa Nadal launched his bid for a record-extending 14th French Open title with a straight-sets win over young Australian Alexei Popyrin on Tuesday but it was not as routine as the 6-3 6-2 7-6(3) scoreline suggests.
The Spaniard was quickly into the old routine against the hard-hitting 21-year-old but Popyrin should have become the first person to take a set off on Parisian clay since Dominic Thiem in the 2019 final.
Popyrin stayed in the contest early on with some fierce hitting but when he dropped serve in the seventh game Nadal assumed control and appeared to be on course for a quick win on a sunlit Philippe Chatrier court.
But world number 63 Popyrin, who played Nadal for the first time in Madrid last month, did not go without a fight and began to unsettle the champion with some huge serving.
He broke Nadal for a 4-2 lead in the third and had two set points at 5-3, only to double fault on the first one and then make a hash of an overhead on the second.
Nadal, seeded third this year as he chases a record 21st Grand Slam title, was not firing on all cylinders but came through the tiebreak easily to make it 26 sets won in succession at the French Open.
Frenchman Richard Gasquet awaits Nadal in Thursday’s second round when the Spaniard will celebrate his 35th birthday.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman)