The 13-time Roland Garros champion Rafael Nadal embraced his 17th Parisian campaign with a solid 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 triumph over Alexei Popyrin. It was Nadal's second victory over a former junior Roland Garros champion in a couple of weeks, beating him in Madrid in May and repeating that in Paris for his 101st Roland Garros win from 103 encounters!
The four-time defending champion played well in the opening two sets before Popyrin forged a 5-2 advantage in the third set, looking good to clinch it and extend his chances. Serving at 5-3, Alexei created two set points and wasted both after terrible errors before Rafa converted a break chance to prolong the set.
Rafael Nadal defeated Alexei Popyrin after saving set points in the third.
The Spaniard locked the result at 5-5 and created four break chances in the next one, denied by the Aussie, who secured a tie break, where he had no room for errors.
Nadal fired a forehand crosscourt winner at 1-1 and opened a 4-1 gap following Popyrin's mistakes. A forehand winner pushed Rafa 6-1 up, and he converted the third match point with another powerful forehand that forced Alexei's mistake.
After the encounter, Nadal admitted he doesn't know how he stole the third set from those two set points down, staying competitive and fighting for every ball to rattle off the 26th consecutive set at his beloved Major.
"We are playing the best-of-five matches. The other player needs to win two more sets to beat you, and I know I'm going to be there fighting for every single point. Of course, I don't want to lose the set at all, but that's part of the game.
You face a player that has decided to go for every shot, so you are in trouble. If he's having success as Alexei did with his serve, it's difficult to have breaks, and you are in a tricky position. With his serve and baseline strokes, Popyrin has everything to become a top player.
If he wants to do it, he will have his chances because he has many challenging elements in his game. Let's see what will happen in the following years. It was a tough match because Popyrin plays aggressive tennis, throwing many balls at me on the fast court.
I was lucky to win the third set, and the truth is that I don't even know how I did that. I'm happy to make a winning start in Paris," Rafael Nadal said.