It was a dull Tuesday in Paris until Rafael Nadal arrived inside Court Philippe Chatrier. His first-round match had been highly anticipated; how, everyone wondered, would the struggling nine-time champion play?

Instead, it was how Rafa looked that had people talking. He was dressed in blue, all in blue, from his headband to his shirt to his shorts to his socks to his sneakers. Or at least half of his sneakers. In a kind of reverse-spats effect, the back of his shoes were blue and the fronts were white.

How did it look? I was on the verge of giving it a thumbs up, until someone on Twitter posted a photo of Rafa next to a Smurf—then the thumb, of its own accord, went down. But I do still like the half-blue sneakers.

Now that we have the fashion out of the way, how was Nadal’s form? He started with a few short, tight-looking forehands, and was late on a few backhands. His 18-year-old opponent, Quentin Halys, was “going for the winners all the time,” as Rafa put it, which made it tough to find a rhythm. The clay in Chatrier is playing unusually slow this year, and Rafa had some trouble hitting his heavy topspin through it early on. But he took advantage of the opportunities presented by his erratic opponent, opened up on his shots as he relaxed, and finished in something close to full flow. The stat that tells the story of his 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 match is the unforced errors: Nadal committed 13, Halys 52.

Nadal seemed happiest with his opportunism.

“I played a good match, a solid one” he said (in translated Spanish). “When I had some opportunities, I seized them. The first games in the first set, I mean, were tough. I made some mistakes, but then afterwards I was able to hit my shots.”

Nadal said he had issues with his serve at times, and that his forehand isn’t “smooth enough” right now, but he was happy with his return game.

“It was a correct performance,” Nadal concluded. Then the King of Clay was even heard to boast, “I’m still a solid player.”


Orange and Blue Debut

Orange and Blue Debut

Nadal says “life will continue” if he doesn’t win the French Open, but I’d say Tuesday was a step in the right direction in his quest for his 10th title. You can only tell so much from day-to-day form; in 2009, he didn’t drop a set in his first three rounds before losing to Robin Soderling in the fourth. But you could see today how the tournament’s extended length, its two weeks of three-out-of-five-set matches on labor-intensive red clay, can help him work through any problems with his form and confidence. He's going to get to hit a lot of balls this week.

In my preview of the tournament, I said that, when it comes to his quest to beat Rafa in Paris, it helps Novak Djokovic to face him in the quarters rather than in another final. In 2012, Djokovic came to Roland Garros having beaten Nadal in the three previous Grand Slam finals, but by the time they faced off in the title match in Chatrier, Nadal was the favorite again. By the end of those two weeks he looked unbeatable; even, it seemed, to Djokovic.

But another match with Nole is a discussion for the future. For today, Nadal made more news when he confirmed a report in the Daily Telegraph that he had successfully requested that veteran chair umpire Carlos Bernardes not work his matches. Rafa said that the two of them needed a “break,” after Bernardes wasn’t “respectful” enough during a match of his in Brazil earlier this year. In the semifinals there, Nadal had put his shorts on backward and wanted to turn them around, but was told by Bernardes that he would receive a time violation if he did.

Rafa said of Bernardes in March, “He has been putting more pressure on me than other umpires.” In his defense, he cited the fact that some of his fellow players aren’t punished for “doing bad words, breaking racquets, doing shows on the court.” When Nadal sees that, he says he doesn’t understand why he’s gets nailed for being “five seconds, six seconds late.”

This isn’t unprecedented, as the Telegraph noted. Players and officials have been kept away from each other in the past, sometimes for years. Maybe Bernardes should have relented in the case of the backwards shorts—that was a unique situation. And maybe, as Nadal said, the ATP needs to look at how rigidly and consistently it wants to officiate all aspects of the players’ behavior. But it’s safe to say that over the years Nadal has been given a good deal of slack, from Bernardes and every other umpire, for his pace of play. And no player, including Rafa, should be able to choose who umpires him, simply because that umpire is enforcing a rule too strictly for his liking.


Orange and Blue Debut

Orange and Blue Debut

Chatrier went from blue to orange as Nadal made his exit and Djokovic made his entrance. The world No. 1’s shirt didn’t strike me as anything special, until I found out that it’s supposed to mirror the color of the orange clay beneath his feet. With that in mind, if Djokovic were to go on to win his first French Open wearing it, the shirt could become a classic. Even in fashion, winning heals all wounds, right?

As for Djokovic’s game, it was mostly what we’ve come to expect from him this year. His 6-2, 7-5, 6-2 win over Jarkko Nieminen featured an unbeatably solid first set, an unexpected hiccup in the second, and a relentless race to the finish.

The hiccup was both self-induced and imposed from across the net. At a certain point, Nieminen decided that he wasn’t getting anywhere trying to rally with Djokovic, so he started ending the rallies early. For five or six games, the winners flew and the plan worked; Nieminen went up 4-1, had break points for 5-1, and served for the set at 5-2.

At the same time, Djokovic’s strokes went wonky, especially his best stroke, his return of serve. He couldn’t find the timing on it, even on Nieminen’s slow-moving second balls. Then two things happened.

First, down a break point at 1-4, on the verge of being out of the set, Djokovic put together his most thorough and impressive rally of the match, finishing it with a volley winner. These were not the shots of a panicked man.

A few minutes later, down 3-5, after missing a series of easy returns wide of the sidelines, Djokovic took a second serve and aimed it straight down the middle of the court. Rather than go for a winner or an angle, he hit for depth and gave himself a lot more margin for error. It was a simple change, but it was the right one at the right time. Djokovic made the shot, won the point, and won five straight games for the set.


Orange and Blue Debut

Orange and Blue Debut

“It was a test,” Djokovic said. “He can play. He can swing through the ball and be very aggressive. And he was the better player for most of the second set. And then, you know, [I] managed to come back and play some good shots, stayed patient, stayed calm. And overall it was a very solid performance.”

The question for Djokovic at this year’s French Open is a little like the question that Hillary Clinton will face in next year’s U.S. presidential election. Is it better to be miles ahead of the pack at the start of the race, or is it better to build momentum later and reach top speed at the finish line? Right now, it’s tough for Djokovic to gather more momentum at a time when no one appears to be gaining on him. But that may not be the case for long; Nadal knows all about gaining ground during the French Open. How will Nole react if Rafa starts to look like Rafa again before they play?

I said above that Nadal's win was a step forward for him. Djokovic’s win wasn’t a step forward, because he’s already as far forward as he can get. But it was a good sign. When adversity arrived, he kept his head. With his game where it is right now, that’s all he needs to do.

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