You can’t be brilliant every day, but if you’re light years ahead of your opponent in skill, you don’t need to be. That’s the lesson people who watched Rafael Nadal’s 6-1, 6-3, 6-4 defeat of Eduardo Schwank in the third round of Roland Garros will probably take away from today’s match.
In his first two matches, Nadal’s play shone as brightly as his shirt, but there was a definite lack of sparkle and intensity in his routine win today. Still, the result was never really in doubt. After Nadal won the first of many cat-and-mouse exchanges at the net to break Schwank in his opening service game—and race to a 3-0, double-break led in 18 minutes—the Argentine already had the dull-eyed, shell-shocked look familiar to many of Rafa’s opponents. A bagel set looked on the cards, but Nadal struggled to shake off his outmatched but determined opponent, missing two relatively routine forehands and botching an over-confident overhead to give up break point. Schwank put in a great lob, one of many fine touch shots, but missed his chance to follow the ball in, then put a tame mid-court forehand in the net. A poor Nadal volley wide gave up a second break point, but it was saved with a timely ace. Nadal held for 4-0, eventually breaking again to take the first set in 46 minutes.
Schwank, once a brilliant junior, is currently ranked No. 196. Better known as a doubles player, his experience in that discipline showed both positively and negatively in his approach to the match. Even with Nadal’s return game not at its best, Schwank won only 60 percent of points on his less- than-fearsome first serve; on the other hand, he had a lot of success (relative to a straight sets defeat) in playing drop shots and approaching the net, two tactics which are generally a death sentence against the Spaniard’s speed and passing shots.
Coupled with a lackluster Nadal serving day—60 percent for the match and only one ace—Schwank earned another opportunity to break in the opening game of the second set. But Nadal held on, broke to lead 2-0, and if the match from that point onwards often felt like something of a slog, it was at least a slog towards ineluctable victory.
Schwank kept the deficit to a single break in both the second and third sets, but that was the most he could accomplish. While Nadal never quite began to peel off forehand winners as we know he can, he did more than enough from the baseline and showed himself increasingly adept at picking up on Schwank’s drop-shots, lobs, and patterns of play at the net as the match progressed. Given that he has still not dropped more than four games in a single set this tournament, it’s hard to be too critical of an energy-saving performance, particularly with bigger names looming in the second week.