PARIS—Rafael Nadal is the defending champion here at the French Open, although it seems marginally absurd to apply the word “defending” to a player who’s won this title eight times, and is “defending” his way—if it works out like it did all those other times—to a record fifth consecutive triumph.
I’d say Nadal is the “offending” champ, and not just because of the number of times he’s crushed all comers at Roland Garros (coming into today's match, his record at this event was 59-1). Not even because he so often wagged his finger in the mug of Roger Federer in Paris. Nadal is also offensive in another way: Has any comparably able defender been as good at turning the tables and going on the offensive in the course of a given point, or match, or rivalry?
One minute Nadal looks like he’s taking a licking, the next he’s biting another trophy.
But these haven’t been the sunniest of times for Nadal, so it was almost fitting that he opened his tournament on a gloomy, soggy, dank afternoon, when even the fabled Parisian baguettes were about as crispy as a slice of Wonder Bread. His opponent was Robby Ginepri, the surprise winner of the competition for the reciprocal wild card the French give the Americans.
Ginepri is less up-and-coming than down-and-going. He’s struggled with injuries, is 31 years old, and he’s down to No. 279 in the rankings. In better times, he was ranked as high as No. 15 (2005), but he also seemed to be a player of fluctuating inspiration, which may account for the wide swings in his rankings profile.
Ginepri has won three ATP tournaments in his career; Nadal has won 63. The part reserved on the tip sheet for Ginepri’s “highlights” of 2014 is a depressingly big white space, although the advisory does tell us, later, that he was the first man to play at Wimbledon in a sleeveless shirt (2003).
Well, he’s at least got something on Rafa.
You had to feel for Ginepri, who played his way into receiving the wild card by doing well in stateside Challenger tournaments. He learned of his fate while on site, practicing.
“Bit of a downer,” he would say after today’s match. “Midway through practice with Jack Sock, they (friends) were all on the changeover and they were like, ‘The draw is out. Do you want to know who you play?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ They said, ‘Nadal.’ I don't think I made another ball the rest of that practice.”
Ginepri was the first one introduced to the crowd on the packed Court Suzanne Lenglen. He waved shyly as he shambled bow-legged out to his chair. He dropped his bag, and began the usual futzing-around rituals. But as the PA announcer introduced the top-ranked player in the world to a growing crescendo, even Ginepri couldn’t resist darting a covert glance at the entryway, as if he might wake from this anxiety dream to find that he was playing. . . Dudi Sela.
No such luck.
But the adventurous (or is it merely suicidal?) side of Ginepri was actually looking forward to this meeting, having never had the pleasure of playing Nadal on a clay court. Acknowledging that it was a “tough pill to swallow,” he added, “I always wanted to play him on clay and see how good he is. He showed me a lesson today. A lot of positives to take away. It was fun out there today, even though the scoreline didn't really reflect it.”
Indeed. A little of Rafa goes a long, long way on clay—an hour and 42 minutes, to be exact. Nadal won it, 6-0, 6-3, 6-0, and Ginepri took it like a man, pointing to a few blown chances: A game he lost from 40-love up in the first set; the wretched break he handed Nadal at 3-3 in the second set—after having had a break point of his own in the fourth game. The match was, as Ginepri said, a little more competitive than the score indicates.
“I was a little nervous because I haven’t seen a big ball like that in a long time,” Ginepri said. “Obviously, coming from Tallahassee Challenger, no one is hitting like that.
“I wasn't able get on the ball like I wanted to. In the beginning it was super heavy out there and it got really thick and slow, so I knew that was a big advantage for him.
“Obviously I wasn't able to dictate the way I normally do, and stay in the court. He makes you play a different style, the way he wants to play and construct his points. But you throw in a double fault here, or an unforced error there, and he's going to make you pay. He doesn't go away one point.”
Nadal pronounced himself pleased with his start, given that he was convinced early on that he wouldn’t get on court today because of the persistent if light rain. That made for some anxious moments for him in the locker room, but it seems he’s no stranger to the hee-bee jee-bees these days, no matter what the weather looks like beyond the window.
Sometimes, the simple answer is not just the best answer but also the correct answer. And from what I see, Nadal simply isn’t a very happy lad these days. He’s looked careworn and at times even baffled, and he’s been infected at times by the one quality you never expect to see taking up residence in his heart, negativity.
Even during an easy day at the office, like he had today, Nadal seemed a few times to overreact somewhat to his errors, even though they posed absolutely no serious threat. Nadal had 19 break points and successfully converted eight of them. Ginepri had just one, and Nadal saved it.
As far as this slight drop in Nadal’s form this spring and how it might impact his chances here, he said: “Okay. Let's face the facts. In Monte-Carlo the match was what it was. Everything went very fast. And to be very honest, I can't exactly remember how I felt three or four weeks ago.
“And then when you take a rest and you start practicing again, you get back to your routine, you forget about everything that happened. I don't think about Barcelona or Monte-Carlo anymore. I'm just focused on my matches and today could only think about Ginepri.”
And Ginepri could only think about Nadal, and had his curiosity satisfied. The beaten man wasn’t buying any of this “slump” talk after their encounter. “I don't think a No. 1 player in the world can ever be in a slump, especially on his home court,” Ginepri said. “I think it's probably one the toughest feats in sports, to play Nadal at the French Open. To beat that guy in five sets takes a lot.”
At just about the time Nadal pulled out of that slight second-set swoon, the clouds parted to reveal the first blue patch of the day, and welcome mellow sunlight fell across the floor of Lenglen. And for the next few minutes, as Nadal swept away what remained of Ginepri’s resistance, Rafa looked like a man without a care in the world.