x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Clay king Nadal back in groove

A resurgent Lleyton Hewitt was expected to ask the first serious questions about Rafael Nadal but the Spaniard provided the most emphatic of answers.

Rafael Nadal of Spain feels he is playing exceedingly well after his victory over Lleyton Hewitt in straight sets in the third round of the French Open.
Rafael Nadal of Spain feels he is playing exceedingly well after his victory over Lleyton Hewitt in straight sets in the third round of the French Open.

A resurgent Lleyton Hewitt was expected to ask the first serious questions about Rafael Nadal's capabilities of extending his dominance of the French Open through a fifth year. The manner in which the feisty Australian was sent packing from Paris, winning only five games in a painful and rapid humiliation provided the most emphatic of answers.

The message is a scary one for all those survivors of the first week at Roland Garros who have designs on Nadal's title - the Spaniard is back in the groove which has enabled him to reign supreme at this grand slam for 31 unbeaten matches. By next Sunday that winning streak is likely to be raised to 35 unless somebody can find a way to dismantle a powerful game which is ideally suited to the slower pace of the red clay.

Britain's Andy Murray aspires to be the one to bring the champion's wonderful reign to an end after reaching the last 16 stage of this event for the first time. Murray, ranked third in the world, is scheduled to meet Nadal in the semi-finals and is confident of at least giving himself the opportunity to dethrone the master. "It hasn't been too demanding physically and now I feel good going into next week," said Murray, who secured an earlier than expected passage into the fourth round when his Serbian opponent Janko Tipsarevic retired injured after losing the first two sets.

"I'll obviously try to do better now," added the Scot, who went desperately close to capturing his first grand slam title when he lost to Roger Federer in the final of last year's US Open. "I'd love to go further and go very deep into the tournament." To secure a 10th clash with Nadal, who has defeated him on seven previous occasions, Murray must account for the 13-seeded Croatian Marin Cilic today and then negotiate a quarter-final encounter with either the tough Chilean Fernando Gonzalez, or Victor Hanescu, of Romania.

Nadal has firstly Sweden's Robin Soderling and then either Nikolay Davydenko, of Russia or fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco blocking his path towards what would be a tantalising battle with the man who has brought Britain hopes of a first men's grand slam title since the late Fred Perry won a third Wimbledon in the 1930s. Murray knows that targeting the French as a prospective first major is unrealistic until Nadal is toppled and the world No 1 is clearly going to take some toppling in his favourite arena. "He's as good as he's ever been right now," said a vanquished and bamboozled Hewitt.

"He's on top of the rankings, he's holding three of the four grand slams, he was hitting his spots against me and mixing it up extremely well. It's tough against him." Nadal reflected on what even for him was a surprisingly easy passage: "A win against Lleyton is always good news but this is an amazing result for me," he said. "You must be playing well to beat him so comfortably. "Improving daily is what it's all about here and I'm very happy with my form at the moment."

The one-sided affair with Hewitt was much more comfortable for Nadal than the post-match press conference in which his controversial views on random drug testings again came to the fore. Nadal, who emphasised that keeping his sport clean is paramount, is frustrated by the way that cleanliness is achieved. "They [the drug testers] harass us, I think. We are paying a high price. I don't think it is good to put so much pressure on the players and the ITF [the International Tennis Federation] should take measures to improve the situation."

wjohnson@thenational.ae