Rafael Nadal wins in straight sets as he launches French Open defence

Eight months ago in the soggy, cold surrounds of a rare autumn Roland Garros, there were ample doubts circling Rafael Nadal – the loudest from himself – as he began his title defence in conditions that blunted his heavy topspin. It went quite well in the end: Nadal finished the fortnight with just one set lost, and winning the first in the final, against Novak Djokovic, 6-0.

There will be no such questions this year. Even while seeded third and the possibility of a semi-final with Djokovic looming, Nadal is the heavy favourite until further notice. On Tuesday Nadal started his campaign for an absurd 14th title by defeating Alexei Popyrin 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (3) in the sun to reach the second round with his 101st win at Roland Garros, to just two losses, clinching his 31st consecutive victory.

It was not always Nadal’s most fluent performance against Popyrin, a 21-year-old Australian player with a meaty serve and weapons he is still trying to harness.

After Nadal took the opening two sets, Popyrin responded with a rich run of games. He broke serve and moved into a 5-3 lead as he seemed set to force a fourth set.

On the first set point, Popyrin dropped a second serve into the net. On the second, a minute later, he slammed an overhead straight into the back fence.

Popyrin followed that error with a horrific forehand that landed metres wide of the tramlines. Nadal forced the break with a searing forehand. That marked the end of any resistance. Nadal wrestled the momentum in his favour and clinched the match on a tiebreak, a reminder that any opportunity must be taken against Nadal on his court.

“Of course the conditions of last year for me at the end have been good because I won. That’s the thing, no?” Nadal said, smiling.

“But that’s past. This year, we come back to a normal date. So, yeah, warm conditions. I think for everybody is much more comfortable to play under these conditions than in the other ones. That’s what we are used to play here in Roland Garros. Yeah, I am happy for that.”

In the women’s draw, the world No 1 Ashleigh Barty returned to Roland Garros for the first time since her triumph in 2019 with a 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 victory against Bernarda Pera of the US. However, the Australian arrived with a left hip/back injury that she will need to manage in order to advance further.

Barty already had some injury questions to answer after she retired from Rome with an arm issue. After losing the second set against Pera, she received a medical timeout before recovering.

“It’s going to be a little bit tough this week,” she said.

“I think over the weekend we had a bit of a flare‑up through my left hip, which obviously just needed a bit of help today, needed some assistance to try and release it off as best I could. But, I think we were able to fight through, able to give ourself [sic] a chance to play again the next round.”

Venus Williams fell 6-3, 6-1 to the 32nd seed Ekaterina Alexandrova in less than an hour to mark her sixth successive defeat. Williams is 3-12 since the pandemic hiatus, she turns 41 years old this month and is ranked 104th, a place actually helped by the pandemic ranking points freeze.

Yet the former No 1 also seems content and happy to enjoy whatever remains of her nomadic life as a professional tennis player, so many years removed from when she was the most feared player across the lands. She also still knows how to give a firm quote. Asked how she deals with the press in light of Naomi Osaka’s announcement, she did not hold back.

“For me personally, how I deal with it is that I know every single person asking me a question can’t play as well as I can and never will, so no matter what you say or what you write, you’ll never light a candle to me,” Williams said. “So that’s how I deal with it. But each person deals with it differently.”