Rafael Nadal

The Rafael Nadal fan club was in session at the French Open this afternoon. BBC commentator Sam Smith was giving full vent to her adoration for the Spaniard and the way he conducts his life both on and off the court. As a Rafa supporter, who am I to argue? But when Sam spoke in reverential terms about the unassuming, publicity-shy man who (for now at least) still occupies tennis’s top spot, I did find myself doing the aural equivalent of a double take.

Sam, I have two words for you: Giorgio Armani. Unless you’ve been sequestered in your commentary box since January, you can hardly have failed to notice that Rafa’s underwear has been keeping the search engines buzzing again — this time for the right reasons. Only yesterday afternoon I saw a giant poster of the Spaniard’s oiled and digitally enhanced torso emblazoned on a London bus. Shy and retiring? Maybe, but when you choose to follow the likes of David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo as the sporting six-pack of the moment, you can hardly be described as a shrinking violet. Oh, and let’s not forget about that Shakira video.

Anyway, back to today’s first-round match against John Isner, in which Nadal’s towelling off and shorts-tugging act took second place to some high quality tennis. Outwardly nothing much seems to have changed at Roland Garros 2011. Courtside clusters of red geraniums. Check. Billboards for upmarket eyewear sponsors. Check. Nadal in action as the defending champion. Check. But after back-to-back losses to Djokovic in Madrid and Rome, the Spaniard was hardly arriving on the crest of a clay-court wave. All the talk, understandably, has been of Novak’s unbeaten run, which has seen him book a spot for this year’s ATP World Tour Finals already.

Even if Rafa’s annual canter across the clay courts of Europe has been “less than stellar”, his opponent came into the match with only 10 victories and 12 defeats this year. At a lofty 6’9″, Isner always looks to me as though he’s just wandered in from a kegger. As the Pyrrhic victor in last year’s Wimbledon snorefest against Nicolas Mahut, he shouldn’t have been too troubled by the prospect of a war of attrition with Nadal.

I didn’t rate Isner’s chances of detaining Nadal for too long on a surface that doesn’t traditionally favour big servers. But from the opening set, the American impressed me with his willingness to come to the net and avoid getting sucked into long baseline rallies. Time and again his dropshots and angled volleys put the ball out of reach of even the fleet-footed Spaniard. Nadal, though, won the first set pretty comfortably and when he went a break up in the second you felt Isner was destined to play second fiddle as so many others have done.

But Rafa lost the range on his groundstrokes and a poor service game let Isner back into the match. Receiving serve from so far behind the baseline that he was almost in the stands, Nadal was getting serves from Isner rearing up around his head. (In cricketing terms it would be something like a beamer.) What really shocked me was how poorly the Spaniard played the tiebreaks that ended the second and third sets. Isner won both by the emphatic score of 7-2 and Nadal admitted afterwards that he was “nervous”.

One of Nadal’s big strengths used to be that his body language rarely betrayed his anxiety — whatever the state of the match. Even when he blew a two-set lead against Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon Final I can’t remember him looking as rattled as he did today. You felt that if the fourth set went to a tiebreak, a huge first-round upset was on the cards. (Bear in mind that Nadal’s loss to the charmless Swedish hitman Robin Soderling in 2009 remains his only blemish in this tournament.)

Well, he pulled himself together and won the fourth set pretty convincingly by 6-2. Though Isner served first in the final set, Nadal was now finding the mark with his passing shots and he broke serve in the third game with some vintage service returns. Though we continued to hear a lot about Isner’s gigantic “wingspan”, his stranglehold on the match was over. A relieved Nadal celebrated his 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 6-2, 6-4 win with almost as much gusto as his nine Grand Slam wins.

Roger Federer is nothing short of a sporting deity in these parts. I suspect that if you cut a French tennis fan in half you’d find the initials “RF” running all the way through. An early Rafa exit would have made them happy, but it’s Andy Murray who really would have benefitted. He won easily today against the unfortunately named local boy, Eric Prodon and will be hoping that Nadal’s frailties persist into the second week. My money’s on the man John McEnroe insists on calling “JOKEvic” winning his first French Open.