Seven matches for a seventh French Open title: It's the kind of numerical symmetry Rafael Nadal, with his penchant for order, can surely appreciate. He can tick the first one off his list after an almost casual victory over Simone Bolelli, 6-2, 6-2, 6-1.
"He's not a great tennis player, but he hits the ball like a great tennis player." That was Mats Wilander's somewhat circuitous assessment of Bolelli, now ranked 111th in the world. There were stretches when one could see what he meant, notably at the match's beginning and in the middle of the second set. Unfortunately, those stretches lasted only minutes at a time and did not manage to seriously slow down Nadal's march to victory.
They also happened to coincide with lapses in Nadal's concentration. The defending champion started the match slowly, making a rash of backhand errors in the first couple of games as Bolelli set out his stall with recklessly aggressive play. From the outset, it was clear that Bolelli would live and die by his success in running around his single-handed backhand to take the ball early and go for the clean forehand winner. Broken to 15 for 2-4 after four forehand errors, it was also clear that it would not be a winning tactic. Either Bolelli missed soundly, even on short balls with an open court, or Nadal took advantage of the space afforded by running around the backhand to smack his own forehand for a winner. We were seeing both frequently by the time Bolelli buried another forehand in the net to close a 35-minute opening set.
The Italian stuck to that strategy like grim death, however, and it's easy to see why: The alternative was to allow Nadal to pound his single-handed backhand until the ball got too high for him to handle. Bolelli had some slight success coming forward, but was equally often stung by Nadal's passing shots. By the time Nadal led the second set 4-0, it appeared Bolelli would be lucky to get a game.
Leading 30-0, however, a moment's inattention set in and Nadal double-faulted to give up a break. When Bolelli actually landed a couple of forehands inside the court, then held for 2-4 and reached 15-40 on Nadal's serve, there was a glimmer of hope for a real contest. Nadal quickly stubbed it out, however, pummeling Bolelli's backhand for an error, and on the next point coming in to net behind wide strokes for a delicious volley. After Bolelli's third break point came and went, Nadal broke for the set with a massive forehand winner and never looked in trouble again, breaking Bolelli twice in the third.
It was not the cleanest match that Nadal has ever played on Philippe Chatrier, but the six-time champion still barely broke stride as he trampled Bolelli into the dust. It's Denis Istomin who will be faced with the unenviable task of trying to stop Nadal in the next round.