The sun was shining brightly at Roland Garros, the sky an azure blue, the temperature climbing through the eighties. What more could Rafael Nadal have asked for when he walked on court for a third-round appointment against David Goffin? No player in modern times has thrived more on sunny day than Nadal. He has always believed that the heat makes his already devilish topspin forehand bound even higher. Perspiration is a condition he readily accepts. He makes his opponents suffer inordinately on afternoons like this. And that is why poor Goffin was always going to be hard-pressed against the incomparable Spaniard.
Goffin has been trying to work his way back toward the top of his game after a disappointing and disrupted 2018 campaign. He had concluded 2017 at No. 7 in the world after upending both Nadal and Roger Federer en route to the title round of the ATP Finals in London. Never before had had finished a year among the Top 10. But he dropped to No. 22 in last year's final ATP Rankings, and his results this season have been mediocre at best.
No wonder he commenced his contest today against the redoubtable Nadal so filled with insecurities. The Spaniard pounced on them, and him, in the first set. He conceded only two points in the first three games. He lost only one point in four service games. Nadal swept through that chapter majestically, winning it 6-1 in 28 ruthless minutes.
Goffin elevated his game in the second set and made Nadal work considerably harder. Nadal garnered a break in the opening game, held comfortably for 2-0, and then had Goffin seemingly trapped at 0-30 in the third game. A break there might have demoralized the Belgian. But Nadal uncharacteristically did not exploit his opening. He made a few unforced errors off the backhand. Goffin swung more freely. He held on gamely.
Nadal, however, did not dwell on his missed opportunity. Despite a double fault at the start of the following game and a 0-30 deficit, he held on a run of four consecutive points for 3-1, and never looked back. Ahead 3-2, 40-30, Nadal finished off the game with an elegant forehand drop shot winner. Nadal went to 5-3 with an easy hold at 15, including an ace on the penultimate point of that game. And then he decided it was time to break again. He did so in the ninth game, sealing the set 6-3. He was protecting his serve so sedulously that Goffin had no cause for optimism.
Goffin competed well in the third set. He stayed with Nadal on serve until 3-3, holding in the sixth game with a beautifully executed inside-out forehand winner. By this time, Goffin was pridefully forcing Nadal to dig a little deeper, to play at a higher level, and to feel slightly more tension as he went about his business. Nadal had kept him entirely at bay in the exchanges almost all right-handers dread, driving the heavy topspin forehand up high to the opponent’s two-hander and inevitably drawing errors. But Goffin was finding his range. In the eighth game, he held at love for 4-4 with another backhand winner, this one a whistler crosscourt.
Nadal had been impenetrable on his own serve. Another forehand down-the-line drop-shot winner on the first point of the ninth game gave him a 15-0 lead. But Goffin coaxed an error with a deep forehand down the line, and then Nadal missed, pressing on a forehand down the line. Now Goffin unloaded on a forehand down the line for a winner to make it 15-40. Two points later, he came through dynamically, using a fine return to set up another dazzling forehand winner.
Improbably, Goffin was serving for the third set at 5-4 after breaking Nadal for the first time in the match with a stream of spectacular shots. He double faulted for 15-15, but played the rest of that game impeccably. The secret to Goffin's successful set was simple: he went for broke on his forehand, lacing one winner off that side in the last game of the set at 100 M.P.H. averaging in the range of 92 M.P.H. And despite that audacious strategy, he was hardly missing. Taking that set after being two games away from a straight-sets defeat was no mean feat.
Yet Nadal was not unduly concerned. He got tight in the opening game, double faulting at 40-0, allowing Goffin back to deuce. But a service winner down the T got Nadal to game point for the fourth time, and he held on when Goffin missed a backhand return.
The shadows were coming across the court at this juncture of the match. The conditions had changed, but not Nadal’s match-playing disposition. In the fourth game of the fourth set, he picked away meticulously at Goffin’s backhand and kept coaxing errors. Nadal broke in timely fashion at 30 for 3-1. The rest of the way, although not at his zenith and somewhat apprehensive, he was unshakable. Nadal masterfully made Goffin keep hitting two-handlers from up above the shoulders. He no longer allowed the Belgian to unleash those devastatingly potent forehands.
Nadal moved on to the round of 16, dismissing Goffin, 6-1, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3. The match became slightly more complicated than Nadal’s most ardent admirers would have wanted, but the fact remains that he lost his serve only once, and controlled the tempo very well in three of the four sets. It was a job well done.
The Spaniard has raised his career match record at Roland Garros to an unimaginable 89-2. The view here is that the only player in the field who can and will stop Nadal from capturing a 12th crown this year is named Novak Djokovic.