Rafael Nadal fought back from 2-5 down in the third set to notch his 101st win at Roland Garros Tuesday while seventh seed Andrey Rublev was knocked out in the first round as the in-form Russian lost a five-set thriller to Jan-Lennard Struff.
The 34-year-old Nadal, seeded third, raced through the first two sets before eventually clinching a 6-2, 6-3, 7-6 (7/3) win over Alexei Popyrin.
“I was lucky to win that third set, I don’t know how (I did). The beginning of the match had been very tough too,” said Nadal, who had been 2-5 down in the third set, saving two set points.
“In these warm and fast conditions it’s always very difficult. He’s young and the speed of his ball is very strong.”
Up next is fellow 34-year-old Richard Gasquet. The pair first played one another when they were children. As professionals, Nadal leads 16-0.
Questions had been asked about Nadal’s form earlier in the clay-court season when he lost to Andrey Rublev in the Monte Carlo Masters and Alexander Zverev in Madrid. But he hit back with the Italian Open title, beating Novak Djokovic in the final.
He carried that form into the first two sets against Popyrin, striking 18 winners past the 21-year-old.
But the youngster looked in prime position to force a fourth set, only to miss two set points on his own serve as Nadal showed off his famous powers of recovery. The reigning champion powered 6-1 clear in the tie-break before securing a second-round spot at the third time of asking.
“I was lucky to win that third set, I don’t know how (I did),” added Nadal. “The beginning of the match had been very tough too. In these warm and fast conditions it’s always very difficult. He’s young and the speed of his ball is very strong.”
It was Nadal’s 101st career win at the French Open, against just two losses – to Robin Soderling in 2009 and Djokovic in the 2015 quarter-finals.
The Spaniard could usurp Roger Federer at the top of the all-time men’s list with a 21st Grand Slam singles title in Paris. He started in ominous fashion for his rivals and has still not lost a set at Roland Garros since beating Dominic Thiem in four sets in the 2019 final.
Rublev, who beat Rafael Nadal en route to the Monte Carlo Masters final earlier this season, fought back from two sets down before succumbing 6-3, 7-6 (8/6), 4-6, 3-6, 6-4 in three hours and 46 minutes.
The 23-year-old, who had reached the quarter-finals in each of his previous three Grand Slam tournaments, was the third-highest seeded player in his half of the draw, behind Novak Djokovic and Nadal.
Big-hitting German Struff will face Argentinian Facundo Bagnis in the second round.
Italian 37-year-old Andreas Seppi, playing in his 63rd successive Grand Slam, stunned 20th seeded Felix Auger-Aliassime 6-3, 7-6 (10/8), 4-6, 6-4.
For Seppi, it was a first win at any level this year.
Pablo Cuevas (URU) bt Lucas Pouille (FRA) 6-3, 6-1, 6-3
James Duckworth (AUS) bt Salvatore Caruso (ITA) 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (7/4), 6-2
Ricardas Berankis (LTU) bt Ugo Humbert (FRA x29) 6-4, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4
Alex De Minaur (AUS x21) bt Stefano Travaglia (ITA) 6-2, 6-4, 7-6 (7/4)
Marco Cecchinato (ITA) bt Yasutaka Uchiyama (JPN) 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4
Matteo Berrettini (ITA x9) bt Taro Daniel (JPN) 6-0, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4
Federico Coria (ARG) bt Feliciano Lopez (ESP) 6-3, 7-6 (7/4), 6-2
Soonwoo Kwon (KOR) bt Kevin Anderson (RSA) 7-5, 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (7/4)
Andreas Seppi (ITA) bt Félix Auger-Aliassime (CAN x20) 6-3, 7-6 (10/8), 4-6, 6-4
Rafael Nadal (ESP x3) bt Alexei Popyrin (AUS) 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (7/3)
Richard Gasquet (FRA) bt Hugo Gaston (FRA) 6-1, 6-4, 6-2
Mikael Ymer (SWE) bt Roberto Carballes Baena (ESP) 6-4, 0-6, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2
Gael Monfils (FRA x14) bt Albert Ramos Vinolas (ESP) 1-6, 7-6 (8/6), 6-4, 6-4
Diego Schwartzman (ARG x10) bt Lu Yen-Hsun (TPE) 6-2, 6-2, 6-3
Aljaz Bedene (SLO) bt Adrian Mannarino (FRA) 7-5, 3-6, 7-5, 6-2
Philipp Kohlschreiber (GER) bt Fernando Verdasco (ESP) 7-6 (7/3), 6-2, 2-6, 6-4
Aslan Karatsev (RUS x24) bt Jenson Brooksby (USA) 6-3, 6-4, 6-4
Facundo Bagnis (ARG) bt Benjamin Bonzi (FRA) 7-5, 6-3, 6-4
Jan-Lennard Struff (GER) bt Andrey Rublev (RUS x7) 6-3, 7-6 (8/6), 4-6, 3-6, 6-4
With AFP Inputs