We’ve been waiting for Rafael Nadal since Thursday, when his second-round match with Martin Klizan was supposed to be played. He teased us yesterday by walking onto Court Philippe Chatrier before rain sent him home for the evening, and today he opened the long-awaited contest with a love hold. But we still had to wait a little while longer for the seven-time champion to really show up.
Though clearly capable of playing well behind the baseline, Nadal did so to his detriment early on, giving Klizan the looks and opportunities to make this more than just a conventional, straight-sets defeat. That outcome went out the window when Klizan, who reached the fourth round of last year’s U.S. Open, took the first set, 6-4. Whether it was the early start, Court Suzanne Lenglen, nerves, or simply giving his opponent too much respect, Nadal was the one reacting instead of creating, and Klizan obliged by pounding forehands down the line, doing his best Robin Soderling/Daniel Brands impersonation. Klizan also served well throughout the day, keeping Nadal honest—and back—in his return games.
When Klizan was broken for the first time in the second game of the second set, the familiar platitudes rang from the commentary booth. If you didn’t know better, you’d think Nadal had been conceded the match. And yes, Nadal would go on to win, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3, but it was all a bit disrespectful to Klizan’s effort. Still, Brad Gilbert made a good if not novel point afterward about playing Nadal in a best-of-five set match. To beat him, a player must continue to execute their high-risk strategy for not one, nor two, but three sets. We made a big deal out of Nadal going four sets in the first round, and this performance will be similarly dissected. But it’s worth remembering that Brands and Klizan only got one-third of the way through their race.
While it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Nadal after the first set—he hit more errors than we’re accustomed to seeing, needed to save two break points when leading by a break midway through the third set, and was broken at love when serving for the match—it was a script we’ve read before. Nadal grew in confidence as Klizan’s play faltered, hitting deeper and moving quicker. He also looked good on some points he lost, which is never a good sign for his adversary. At times, Klizan was forced to hit multiple would-be-winners to dispel Nadal; again, it demonstrated the level of play the Slovakian would need over the entire match if was to pull off the monumental upset.
That wouldn’t come to pass, but I think it’s fair to ask if we’re still waiting for Nadal to show up at Roland Garros. Considering his play in Madrid and Rome, it’s quite surprising that he’s been tested in each of his first two matches. It would still be quite surprising if he didn’t go very deep. So much so, apparently, that when Nadal led by 4-3 in the third set—the match still tied at a set-all, mind you—ESPN2 decided it was the right time to consider Rafa’s round-by-round path to the semis.