No.1 seed Rafael Nadal opened the second week of his title defence with a routine 7-5, 6-3, 6-3 win over Ivan Ljubicic on Philippe Chatrier Court on Monday. The veteran Croat battled gamely throughout and saved no fewer than 14 break points, coming to the net bravely to try to catch his opponent off-guard, but it takes more than that to rattle the five-time champion on clay over five sets.
Nadal had faced a mixed bag of opponents thus far: a booming server (John Isner), an up-and-coming clay-courter (Pablo Andujar) and a qualifier enjoying his day in the sun (Antonio Veic). They had also come in the "wrong" order, with Rafa pushed to five sets in the opener, three very tight sets in the second and then cruising through the third at four games over the minimum.
What kind of resistance would Ljubicic offer? A man the wrong side of thirty with not so much as a Grand Slam final to his name and just one ATP Masters 1000 title in his trophy cabinet. Statistics can be misleading however - the one title came last year at Indian Wells where he beat Rafa fair and square in the semis, making him the oldest man to open his Masters 1000 account. He also beat seeds Sam Querrey and (an admittedly half-fit) Fernando Verdasco here last week, which is no mean feat.
And thus began the remake of the 2006 semi-final. And like most remakes, nostalgia always makes the original seem slightly better. It had the same ending, with Nadal brushing past Ljubicic in straight sets, but the plot five years ago seemed slightly better. Nadal was the no.2 seed, just celebrating his 20th birthday at a time when the tennis world wondered how far this young prodigy from Manacor could go, and whether he would ever be able to play on any surface other than clay (hindsight is a wonderful gift...) Ljubicic meanwhile was the no.4 seed, part of a group along with Nikolay Davydenko and David Nalbandian that was desperately trying to keep pace with Roger Federer and not taking kindly to the Majorcan upstart short-circuiting them.
This time around, Nadal dominated from start to finish. Statistics do not always do justice to the nuances of a match but Rafa had 20 break points (in 15 receiving games). Ljubicic was always on the back foot, retreating further and further. His opponent whipped forehands into either corner before coming into the net and hitting smashes at a 45-degree angle, his arm almost describing a question mark in the air, as if to say "how can anyone find an answer to that?"
Ljubicic amazingly converted two of the meagre four break points which came his way, mid-way though the first and third sets, but Nadal came back both times and the match was concluded in straight sets in two-and-a-half hours.
The received wisdom before the tournament began was that while Novak Djokovic was the man on a roll, Rafa might just have the stamina - mental and physical - to outlast him over five sets, particularly if the Serb had been forced to dip into his reserves earlier in the tournament. With the retirement of Fabio Fognini giving the Djoker a four-day rest in the second week, the goalposts have been moved. If Nadal is going to win a Borg-equalling sixth title, he is going to have to do it the hard way, but today's display was proof that he is up for the battle.