Nadal makes a grand entrance at Roland Garros despite 'court snub'

Monday May 26th, 2014

Not unlike this afternoon's intermittent rain at Roland Garros, indignities have been sporadically pelting the (de)(de)(de)defending French Open champion here. Ladbrokes, the spectacularly named British betting house, announced that -- for the first time since he's entered Roland Garros -- Rafael Nadal was not the favorite with the punters. In the media enclave, prognosticator after prognosticator (including this one) divined that this would not be Rafael Nadal's year.

Though he has never won the French Open and is ranked No. 2 in the world behind Nadal, it's Novak Djokovic and his Uniqlo attire that dominate ad space and billboards all over town, even greeting arriving travelers at the airport.

Then, Nadal received his first court assignment. To christen still another title defense at Roland Garros, he would be exiled to Court Suzanne Lenglen. The tournament's spin: putting Nadal on a secondary court was a populist move, made to expose new fans to his unrivaled play. Still, this was a move akin to assigning the Seattle Seahawks to begin the 2014 NFL season with a noon kickoff in Jacksonville. Put it this way, it had been a decade since the defending champ started anywhere other than the gran maison, Court Philippe Chatrier.

Nadal would be well within his right to say something to the effect of: "I've won this event eight times in nine years. What more do you guys want from me?"

But that's not Nadal. To call him understated would be, well, an understatement. Before this could become the tournament's first cause célèbre -- triggering any number of conspiracy theories -- Nadal repeatedly said it was no big deal. He didn't think it was snub. Hey, let's just play tennis.

"Always playing [at] Roland Garros is a pleasure for me, is really an honor and is a special feeling. So all of the memories [that] this places gives me are unforgettable," said Nadal. "And doesn't matter if it's Chatrier or Lenglen or another court, [being] around here in Roland Garros is always going to be great. And I started in Lenglen this year, [it's] a great court."

Djokovic shares a moment with a ball boy during a rain delay

Which he did at his usual dizzying level. Pitted against Robby Ginepri -- a veteran whose enthusiasm over earning a wild card was surely doused when he saw the draw -- Nadal played for more than half an hour before losing a game. By then, it was the second set. Nadal whipped his forehand as only he can whip it. He served well, returned better, induced dozens of errors with his pressure and even won 10 of his 11 forays to the net. In what was less a first-round encounter than a glorified sparring session, Nadal won his 60th career match at the French Open (against just one defeat), 6-0, 6-3, 6-0. The Lenglen crowd was -- naturally -- thrilled.

Nadal is a pragmatist. He knows this will likely be his easiest match of the tournament. And his next opponent -- Austrian Dominic Thiem, who beat Paul-Henri Mathieu 6-4, 7-6 (3), 6-2 -- will be considerably tougher. He also knows that there's a reason he's fallen out of favor with the critics in the salon. He's rarely summoned his best tennis in 2014, even on clay. "Only" one title in four French Open tune-ups events is cause for concern.

"To win against anyone I need to play at a good level, and I need to be ready for the fight," said Nadal. "I need to be aggressive and need to find a rhythm on the legs and play solid points, find real ways to win the points. That's it."

Still, among his many gifts, Nadal's game -- like his spin-laced shots -- bounces up in strange ways. You diminish his chances at your peril. Court assignment be damned, he's back at the French Open. Today was a eloquent but forceful reminder: there's a reason he's going for his ninth title. It would be a real PrIX.

French Open Day 1 recap: Federer, Venus, Serena advance with minimal drama

Three-ball rallies

• Kei Nishikori is the first single-digit seed out of the tournament, falling to Martin Klizan in straight sets. But this is less an upset than a badly compromised player deciding to give it a go. Clearly hobbled by the hip/back/calf injury he sustained in Madrid, he looked like a shell of the player who cracked the top ten and took a set off of Nadal on clay this spring. A sign of the times, here's Nishikori's money quote: "It's so very sad for me to lose in the first round here. But it's good I didn't have another injury."

• It's only one match, but Maria Sharapova, the 2012 champ here, sure looked sharp today. In what doubled -- if inadvertently -- as a protest for being placed in Serena Williams' quarter of the draw, Sharapova rolled over Ksenia Pervak 6-1, 6-2. Yes, it's one match over a player outside the top 100, but the heavy conditions and slow court didn't contribute to Sharapova's game.

• Much as we hate to traffic in hype, here comes Francis Tiafoe, assuring the American male tennis interests will be represented in week two.

NGUYEN: Roger Federer's luck, Maria Sharapova's tough luck, more draw analysis

Shots, miscellany

• Several top names have committed to the Citi Open Tournament from July 26 - Aug. 3, including John Isner, Richard Gasquet, Lleyton Hewitt, Bob and Mike Bryan and Sloane Stephens. Ticket packages are available for sale at Ticketmaster.

• Tennis Channel and partner Cox Communications are bringing Cox subscribers TV Everywhere access to Tennis Channel for the French Open. At no additional cost, Cox users with a Tennis Channel subscription can access the network's linear coverage stream.

• Defending champion Nicolas Mahut, and wild cards Marcos Baghdatis and Nick Kyrgios will play Hall of Fame Tennis Championships in Newport.

• The Western & Southern Open announced that Midwest Sports will be an official sponsor and retailer.

• Bob and Mike Bryan, John Isner, David Ferrer, Jelena Jankovic and Marion Bartoli will join the Prince Paris Tour this week.

• Long Lost Sibling: From a Tennis Channel commentator who will go nameless. Nicolas Mahut is a mix of Robin Soderling and Andy Murray.

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