Some jaded observers may have watched Rafael Nadal demolish Italy’s Stefano Travaglia 6–1, 6-4, 6-0 under the roof on Court Philippe Chatrier and taken the Spaniard’s third-round performance for granted. They might have looked at this match as simply business as usual, as just another early-round meeting with 34-year-old presiding methodically from the baseline and carving out a very comfortable victory with professionalism, but little more than that. They might have thought this was a humdrum piece of business that lacked any imagination or sparkle.

They could not be more wrong if that was their assessment. The beauty of Nadal’s entire approach to his profession is how little he takes for granted, how much he respects each and every opponent, and the utter joy he takes in exhibiting his supreme craftsmanship.

Nadal’s pridefulness extends way beyond the pursuit of a triumph and the satisfaction in securing a win. He is a masterful craftsman who wants to succeed on his own terms, win with the specific tactics he has devised, and perform with a certain verve and creativity that meets a standard only he can set. Nadal is a perfectionist who sizes up every challenge and seeks to dissect his opponents with tennis that delights not only his audiences but also himself.

That is what I found most striking about the Spaniard’s emphatic victory over Travaglia. He started auspiciously and swept through the first set with consummate ease, had a slightly tougher fight across the second set, and then went into his closer mode in the third set to finish mightily. He did it all with an unmistakable self-awareness and style, with a clear sense of strategic acumen, and even some spontaneity toward the end, once he knew he had the match well in hand.


Under the Court Philippe Chatrier roof, Nadal takes it up a notch

Under the Court Philippe Chatrier roof, Nadal takes it up a notch

Getty Images

I marveled at the exuberance Nadal brought to the occasion. He was not overly demonstrative but his emotional energy was ever apparent and his sense of self was fully on display. He raised his career match record at Roland Garros to an astounding 96-2. His career clay-court record is now 441-40. His match record at the four majors combined is 278-39. He is chasing a 13th French Open crown and a 20th major title in the process.

But Nadal was not getting ahead of himself as he moved into the round of 16. Plainly, his mind was on the task at hand and nothing more. And yet, he obviously wanted to take his game up at least a notch from where it had been in the first two rounds of the tournament. In my view, he definitely did that. Facing the world No. 74, who had knocked out Pablo Andujar and Kei Nishikori to earn his appointment with the world No. 2, Nadal won 78% of his first serve points and 82% on his second. He took 19 of 23 points when he approached the net, and released 28 winners and made only 13 unforced errors, while a besieged Travaglia hit only 13 winners and committed 24 unforced errors.

All in all, this was a first-rate performance from the inimitable left-hander. At the outset, Travaglia was awfully apprehensive, conceding the first nine points of the match to an unerring and purposeful Nadal. The Spaniard surged to 3-0. Travaglia managed to hold serve in the fourth game of that opening set, but Nadal went right back to work. He swept 12 points in a row and three straight games to close out the set in 23 minutes.

Travaglia served remarkably well in the second set and stayed with Nadal until the score was locked at 3-3. But Nadal made his move in the seventh game. Stepping up the pace off both sides, he broke at 15 for 4-3. Although Nadal squandered a 40-0 lead in the eighth game, he did not allow the situation to get out of hand. Serving at deuce, his surprise serve-and-volley combination caught Travaglia off guard. Nadal made a perfect backhand drop volley winner to take that point, then moved to 5-3 with a service winner. Serving for the set at 5-4, Nadal held at love with an immaculate service winner down the T.

Nadal's press conference after his third-round victory:


Having stood up to a sterner challenge in that second set, Nadal was at his best during the third. He coaxed an overhead error from Travaglia with a deep and cunning lob to break for 1-0, held at love for 2-0, broke again for 3-0 with a trademark inside-out forehand winner, and then held at love for 4-0 with a service winner (an ace), a forehand inside-out winner and another unanswerable first serve. The last two games were largely a formality before closing the account in style.

After the match, Nadal was told that his fourth-round opponent Sebastian Korda is thrilled about playing him for the first time, and even named his cat after him.

“That means that I have been on TV for such a long time,” he said. “That’s the main thing. The same like when I was a kid watching Sampras, Agassi, Carlos Moya, etcetera, etcetera, no? Another negative thing is that I am 34. That’s another point that is not beautiful.”

Asked what is different about the demands of competing at Roland Garros this year versus the past, Nadal responded, “I come here with the same goal, same passion and motivation. Another thing is, of course, the conditions that we are facing are completely different than in a normal Roland Garros.

“Of course, the ideal situation is another one. But here we are. Just in some way we have to try our best in every single moment.....I am here to try my best. Today was a very positive match for me and I hope to be able to keep going.”

Nadal seems to have fully come to terms with the smaller crowds at Roland Garros and the heavier balls. He is rounding into top form and looking increasingly comfortable with his surroundings. The feeling grows that Rafa is more than ready for the second week of the world’s premier clay-court event.

Under the Court Philippe Chatrier roof, Nadal takes it up a notch

Under the Court Philippe Chatrier roof, Nadal takes it up a notch