If Rafael Nadal's back was bothering him, he sure didn't show it.
In a masterclass of a performance that highlighted why he's arguably the best clay-court player in history, Nadal defeated Dusan Lajovic 6-1, 6-2, 6-1 in their fourth-round matchup at the 2014 French Open. The win brings Nadal's all-time record at Roland Garros to 63-1 and sets a personal record with 32 consecutive victories at the clay-court Grand Slam.
Nadal's only loss in Paris was a fourth-round defeat to Robin Soderling in 2009. He's run four straight French Open crowns since. If Monday's match versus Lajovic was any indication, Nadal might be well on his way to a fifth.
Dominant from the outset, Nadal took care of the Serb in only 93 minutes. The world's top-ranked player won 81 percent of his first-serve points—including a run of 19 straight to start the match—and allowed Lajovic to win 15 receiving points the entire match. While Nadal struggled at times getting his first serve in play, it was really the only issue on a near-perfect afternoon of tennis.
More importantly, side effects of his back injury were nowhere to be found. After defeating Leonardo Mayer in straight sets in their third-round matchup, Nadal complained that stiffness in his back was causing his serve to come off weaker than normal.
"I felt my back a little bit so that’s why I slowed down the serve," Nadal told reporters. "I felt it a little bit from the beginning and in the second match I was not serving that fast, too. I had a few strappings on and in the second set I was feeling the pain. During my career I have had a few problems so always things can happen. Hopefully, it will not be the case here."
Nadal hit 192 kmh with his serve and averaged a solid 173 kmh on his first serves overall. Both stats were marked improvements over the match with Mayer, a sign that perhaps Nadal's training staff figured out a way to loosen him up. There were no signs of outward pain at any point in the match, and he moved around the court briskly throughout.
It's impossible to tell whether Nadal will be able to stay healthy heading into the quarterfinals. But at least for one day, he looked like he was back on top of his game.
For Lajovic, an unseeded player looking for any possible advantage, a healthy Nadal understandably proved far too much to handle.
Lajovic was making his first fourth-round appearance at a Grand Slam tournament. At points, that inexperience showed. Lajovic made 43 unforced errors against nine winners, a rate that would have doomed him against most opponents—let alone Nadal.
The tone for the entire match was put into place in the opening set. Despite missing on half of his first-serve attempts, Nadal won 16 of 20 service points and broke Lajovic twice in a 6-1 romp. It took Nadal only 31 minutes to make it clear to everyone in attendance that no upset was in the making.
Lajovic acquitted himself slightly better in the second set, finding success on his first serve and even building a little momentum as he went along. He pushed Nadal to three break points, but his inability to close the deal when it mattered wound up being the death knell. The Spaniard needed only two more minutes in the second set than in the first despite losing one more game.
Early in the second set, tennis commentator David Law noted his surprise that some are picking Novak Djokovic over Nadal as the favorite:
#Nadal 6-1, 1-0 up. Tougher Serbian opponent to come one suspects. Still can't believe people think this 8-time champion isn't the favourite— DavidLaw (@DavidLawTennis) June 2, 2014
By the third set, the result was largely academic. Pressing with his tournament life on the line, Lajovic flailed wildly with his serve. He hit less than a quarter of his first serves in play, lost 16 of 17 serve points overall and watched as Nadal broke him in all four of his service games. Whether he'd mentally checked out or Nadal had just figured out his serve, the third set featured perhaps the most dominant return game of the entire tournament.
Up next for Nadal is countryman David Ferrer. The pair faced off in last year's French Open final, with Nadal coming away with an easy straight-set victory. Nadal holds a 22-8 all-time record against Ferrer and has dominated him in large part on clay.
That said, there is reason for the always underrated Ferrer to think he has a chance. Ferrer has taken three of their last four head-to-head contests since Nadal's French Open win last year, including a triumph on clay at Monte Carlo. Given that Nadal is yet to play a seeded opponent in his Roland Garros run this year while Ferrer has already been battle-tested, this could be a far closer match than most expect.
Then again, when Nadal's playing like he did Monday, there's no one on the planet who can take him down.
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