Rafael Nadal made a winning start of his 17th Roland Garros, beating the young Aussie Alexei Popyrin 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 in two hours and 23 minutes. Like in Madrid, Popyrin gave his best against the king of clay, playing brave and aggressive tennis and opening a 5-2 lead in the third set that he failed to capitalize on.
Nadal saved two set points and stole the set in the tie break to seal the deal and avoid spending more time on the court. After the match, the 13-time champion praised a former junior Roland Garros winner, saying he should become a top player in the future if he continues to work hard on his game.
Alexei had more winners than Rafa and more unforced mistakes, struggling to keep the pace on the second serve and getting broken four times from 11 chances offered to the Spaniard.
Rafael Nadal defeated Alexei Popyrin in the Roland Garros first round.
Nadal played well in the opening two sets before Popyrin forged that 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, allowing Rafa to convert a break chance and prolong the set. 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 to advance into the next round.
"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.