|Rafael Nadal, in Paris, on Thursday. (Getty Images)
Paris: When it comes to playing on clay, Rafael Nadal’s excellence is so striking that even the slightest problem can seem like a big deal.
For instance, being forced to save a grand total of two break points in one match at the French Open.
“First set I think was good level. Second one was good at the end, but in the middle of the set I had some problems with my serve, two break points in two games,” Nadal said, on Thursday, after beating Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan 6-2, 6-2, 6-0 to advance to the third round.
Istomin didn’t convert either, of course. He then won even fewer points - only five in the six games - in the final set. The win was Nadal’s 47th in 48 matches at Roland Garros. His only loss came in 2009, when Robin Soderling beat him in the fourth round.
Besides that blip, Nadal has won six French Open titles, and one more will break the record he shares with Bjorn Borg. But the second-seeded Spaniard isn’t ready to sit back and relax. There are still some improvements to make. “The serve is the first one. I think I improved the level of my serve during the match, but I started the match serving bad,” Nadal said. “For the rest, more or less I have to be happy.”
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga struggled a bit in his second-round match on Wednesday, but an overnight rain delay worked to his advantage a day later. “Yesterday, the conditions were not the ones I like very much,” said Tsonga, who defeated Cedrik-Marcel Stebe of Germany 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 6-1. “When the weather is heavy, I find it difficult to play.
“I can’t volley well. I can’t play winning points from the baseline, and then you start playing cat and mouse. And I’m not the cleverest at that game.”
When he got back out on court Thursday, with the score tied 1-1 in the third set, Tsonga won 11 of the last 13 games to reach the third round.
Also, grimacing in pain with almost every step, Andy Murray nearly had to call it quits because of a bad back. Instead, the fourth-seeded Brit rebounded from an awful first set to beat Jarkko Nieminen 1-6, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 and reach the third round.
Murray could barely walk straight when the match started on Court Philippe Chatrier, gingerly trotting around the red clay with the equivalent of a big target on his back. Nieminen took advantage, at the beginning. But after losing the first four games, Murray called for a trainer. He then broke back to 4-1, and needed more treatment during the changeover.
The first set was over quickly, and Murray took yet another break for treatment. That one really seemed to do the trick.
Despite being broken to open the second set, Murray started to move better and make his shots count. By the time he broke back to even that score at 4-4, Murray was the one getting stronger.
“I should have taken a double break in the second set to have taken the second set,” Nieminen said. “I couldn’t take that, and then I played one very poor changeover, two bad games, and then he started to play better.
“I really never got the momentum back.”
Last year, Murray injured his right ankle at the French Open, but he still made the semi-finals. This year, he skipped the Madrid Open with a back problem and said it was still affecting him after a three-set loss to Richard Gasquet in the third round of the Italian Open.
It clearly bothered him on Thursday, but he still managed to come through. No. 5 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France and No. 6 David Ferrer of Spain also advanced, while Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova reached the third round by beating Urszula Radwanska of Poland 6-1, 6-3. The fourth-seeded Czech was never really troubled on Court Suzanne Lenglen, saving all three break points she faced.
Kvitova secured her first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon last year, and then won the WTA Championships. Although she has yet to win a title in 2012, she is seeded fourth in Paris and is expected to go deep into the tournament. “I don’t have any expectation. I know that last season was great for me, and it will be very tough to have similar result as last year,” Kvitova said. “So I know this season will be very tough with the pressure and with everything else.”
Radwanska is the younger sister of third-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska. The elder sibling reached the third round on Wednesday by beating seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams.
Caroline Wozniacki advanced to the third round of the French Open by beating Jarmila Gajdosova of Australia 6-1, 6-4, on Thursday.
The ninth-seeded Dane, who last year spent all but one week as the No. 1-ranked player, is still looking to win her first Grand Slam title. At Roland Garros, Wozniacki has never been past the quarter finals, losing at that stage in 2010. For Roger Federer, setting records on the tennis court is getting to be a pretty ho-hum endeavor.
The perks that come with them, like dining with Queen Elizabeth II, are the things to really remember.
“Yes, I have had lunch next to the queen — with the queen, basically,” Federer said. “Big honor, obviously... Thank God, she came.”
Federer beat Adrian Ungur of Romania 6-3, 6-2, 6-7 (6), 6-3 Wednesday in the second round. With the win, the 16-time Grand Slam champion broke a record he shared with Jimmy Connors for most career victories at major tournaments in the Open era, which began in 1968. He is now 234-35 in tennis’ top four tournaments, an .870 winning percentage.
But he was less than his dominant self, wasting two match points in the third set before losing the tiebreaker.
“Instead of being aggressive, I let him show me what he could do,” Federer said. “He played two beautiful shots, and then I started not playing very well.”
Novak Djokovic also advanced to the third round, as did top-seeded Victoria Azarenka of Belarus.