Five thoughts on French Open Day 6, as Rafael Nadal and Venus Williams cruise, and Novak Djokovic and Kristina Mladenovic go the distance for the win.
PARIS – The adage goes like this: “You can't win a major in Week One; you can only lose one.” Technically, it’s true but it's a little light on nuance. You can also use Week One to send a statement to the field.
That’s what Rafael Nadal did on Friday, absolutely running roughshod over Nikoloz Basilashvili 6-0, 6-1, 6-0 (two éclairs and baguette?) in 90 minutes, in what can charitably be called a beat down. Apart from the usual stat sheet excellence, Nadal dictated virtually point and was his relentless self. Next up: countryman Roberto Bautista Agut. While they’ll start the match afresh, with the score 0-0, don’t think Nadal’s play thus far has gone unnoticed by the field.
The last player to beat Nadal, you ask? He's also the last player to beat on him clay over the last 12 months. We speak of Dominic Thiem, the 23-year-old Austrian, the world’s best player under 30. (Which, admittedly, meant much more in previous years.) Thiem took down Nadal in Rome, a confidence booster before trying to improve upon his semifinal showing here in 2016.
On Friday in the third round, Thiem wasn’t Nadal-level awesome, but he was close, simply blitzing American Stevie Johnson in straight sets. Thiem blasted 45 winners against just 19 errors. He then garnished his win by consoling Johnson at the net, no doubt aware that Johnson is grieving the loss of his father.
Three more thoughts on French Open Day 6 on Friday at Roland Garros:
There has been no homegrown French Open men’s champ since 1983 (Yannick Noah). And there has been no homegrown female champ since 2000 (Mary Pierce). It hasn't been for lack of candidates. France consistently produces top players, including three of the top 16 men’s seeds at this event. But player after player has been overwhelmed by a sort of artisanal pressure. Kristina Mladenovic, the 14th seed in the women’s draw has confronted expectation.
She speaks openly of being the favorite. Instead of attempted the futile act of “blocking out the crowd,” she embraces it. Her play has been up-and-down here but—in part because she’s been buoyed by the fans—she remains in the draw. Down 2-5 in the third set to American Shelby Rogers on Friday, Mladenovic decided to stop missing shots. To the delight of the crowd, she won 8-6 in the third set.
"That was epic,” she said. “I think that's the word I'm going to use today,” she said after the match. Mladenovic now faces defending champ Garbine Muguruza in the fourth round.
Novak Djokovic, the defending champ, is still in the tournament. But barely. Playing multiple standard deviations off his 2016 form, Djokovic struggled throughout his third match and needed to rally from a two-sets-to-one deficit to beat the diminutive Argentine, Diego Schwartzman, 5-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, 6-1. Djokovic looked tentative. Djokovic looked vulnerable. Djokovic looked temperamental, arguing with chair umpire Carlos Ramos on multiple changeovers. But in the end, he delivered enough body blows to subdue his opponent.
Some of you ask why the stars prefer best-of-five to best-of-three sets. Today we got a demonstration. Playing a five-setter spanning almost three hours and 30 minutes—especially when your rival preceding you on the court and dropped one game—isn’t the ideal way for a defending champion to advance through midweek encounter from a much lower ranked opponent. But it beats the alternative.
For the first time since early 2011, Venus Williams is playing a major without her sister, Serena, also in the draw. While it might change her rhythms personally, it might have a positive impact on her professionally.
A few weeks from turning 37, Venus is squarely in the "serious contenders" category. She took another step today with a crisp, drama-absent, straight-set win over Elise Mertens of Belgium (surely the only player to list her pet crane in the media guide.) Venus is moving well, stroking the ball well, betraying full comfort on clay, and benefiting from a day off between matches.
In the fourth round, her next match pits her against Timea Bacsinszky, the player who beat her here last year.