The Spanish Armada arrives every year in number to take Roland Garros by storm, its ranks bolstered by admirals, captains and lieutenants. On Thursday one of the more humble seamen was called up onto the main deck and, though he fell in combat, his bravery is sure to be mentioned in dispatches. Pablo Andujar put up an almighty struggle before succumbing 7-5, 6-3, 7-6(4) on Lenglen, and as is often the way with a Rafael Nadal win, the scoreboard does not do justice to his adversary.
For three hours and more there was little to choose between the five-time French Open winner and the man who has (still) never been beyond the second round here. Two Spaniards - one lefty, one righty - sporting almost identical blue shirts and white shorts. Even their three-letter abbreviations on the scoreboard were anagrams of each other… Neither served to the utmost of their capabilities but each compensated by returning with gusto, and all three sets were poised on a knife-edge right up until the last point.
The seventh game of the opener was an absolute classic. It is often said that this is the most crucial game of any set. Win the seventh and statistics say that in 90 percent of cases you will go on to win the set. Nadal had just broken and, when he serves at 4-2, there is usually only one outcome. This time however it was different. For five minutes they went at it hammer and tongs, Rafa's forehands returned by booming backhands. Some comparatively weak second services left the door ajar and Andujar finally barged through it to break back.
Undaunted, Rafa set out to confound the statistics and become the one in 10 who turns it around after the loss of the seventh game. And turn it around he did, but Andujar certainly made him work for it. Nadal broke to lead 5-3 but his second service again got him into trouble and he failed to hold. It looked for all the world as if a tie-break would have to separate them, but at 6-5 Rafa stepped in, kept the points short and pounced at just the right time. After all, a fair percentage of people who win the twelfth game tend to take the set…
The pattern continued in the second, with an early exchange of breaks. The epic game this time was the eighth - purely on the basis of one point which lasted for 32 shots - Nadal on the baseline, Andujar further back but matching him stroke for stroke. Shot number 32 was a backhand down the line of such remarkable purity that Andujar could only watch and admire. Nadal had the break, and this time he did not let it slip, despite allowing his opponent another two break points as his service continued to falter just slightly.
As the third set commenced, Andujar changed shirts. Nadal failed to change service, his first delivery joining the second in the infirmary. In a flurry of charges to the net and angled overhead volleys Valencian Andujar found himself with a two-break lead. He had three set points when serving at 5-1, four more on Nadal's service at 5-2, but somehow the admiral of the fleet managed to ward off each and every one of them. After 80 minutes it all came down to a tie-break - a duel at 78 feet. Nadal has played more than 200 of these in his career, Andujar barely 20, and this proved to be the difference. The world No.48 came back from 5-1 to 5-4 and then had the court at his mercy, only to send a drop-shot into the net. The crowd howled in shock and agony, a veritable death rattle as the battle-hardened Nadal served out to win the tiebreak 7-4.
And so Nadal moves on, a step closer to his sixth Roland Garros crown. Andujar, meanwhile, will be remembered for his part in the Battle of Lenglen and will certainly live to fight another day.