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Life Returns To Normal As Rafa Nadal, Serena Williams And Dominic Thiem Ease Into The French Open Tennis

Rafael Nadal in action against Egor Gerasimov.

By Alix Ramsay

Day Two and things are beginning to get back to normal. It is still cold; it is still deserted and it is still almost October but those with aspirations to do well at Roland Garros did well enough and those without them didn’t. That was a relief.

It was also a relief when the rain stopped lashing down – the morning was a touch damp – and the clouds finally cleared. The forecast is a little better for the next couple of days as it should be warmer but not necessarily much drier. Oh, well; we can’t have everything.

Dominic Thiem got his campaign underway with what could have been a tricky first round against Marin Cilic. When he met the big Croat at the US Open, he predicted that Marin, his serve and his aggression could be one of the bigger threats to his title hopes. No matter, he got through that third round in four sets.

On Monday, in the chill, heavy conditions, Thiem did it again, this time in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. The sloppy clay took the bite from Cilic’s biggest weapons while Thiem, who is, never forget, from Austria where the mercury can plummet alarmingly, was in his element.

Dominic Thiem in action against Marin Cilic of Croatia.

“Conditions, I’m used to them or I know how to play in those kind of conditions, obviously,” he explained, “because in Austria, we have many days like that. And then from junior times and when I started to play professional on the futures in March in Croatia or Czech Republic, there were many tournaments with similar conditions. Cold, heavy balls.

“So it’s not really something new for me, and it helps against guys like Marin, because it’s a little bit easier to return many serves back in the court and to run down almost every ball.”

The US Open champion was also pleased with the way he played. He had been worried that he would not be able to get himself back into the playing (and, hopefully, winning) mindset again after achieving his lifetime’s goal by winning his first major trophy. Coming back from New York, he wanted to relax and enjoy his success for a few days but, at the same time, he did not want to lose the rhythm of competing. It was a tough juggling act.

“The main challenge was to have or to get the match tension again,” he said. “Because I was on fire in New York for two weeks and then one week at home where I tried to relax but not lose all the tension, because obviously I want to do well here in Paris. I guess I found a good mixture, and I’m very happy with this first round today.”

Serena Williams was reasonably happy with her 7-6, 6-0 win over Kristie Ahn, too. The first set was long, far longer than it should have been, but the second set whistled by in just 27 minutes. It was not a perfect start against the world No.101 but, these days, Serena is trying to give herself a break: she doesn’t have to be perfect in every rally and a win is a win no matter what it takes to achieve it.

Serena Williams prior her women’s first round match against Kristie Ahn.

“That’s one thing I have been working on in,” she said. “But it’s just understanding that I have to let go of that — I don’t know the word I’m looking for – expectation.

“That doesn’t mean I’m lowering my expectations. It just means I’m having realistic expectations of not winning every point, every game, every shot.

“So, it sounds crazy, but, you know, that’s me and that’s what makes me me. I’m me. I’m Serena. At some point I’m always going to have some level of perfection, but I just need to have a more reasonable level so I cannot put so much stress on me mentally.”

She will have more than enough stress to deal with when she takes on Tsvetana Pironkova, the Bulgarian world No.156 put up an almighty fight against her in the US Open quarter-finals before losing in three sets. Pironkova steamrollered Andrea Petkovic 6-3, 6-3 on Monday.

“She’s playing well, but I am too,” Serena said. “I’m ready to play her. She’ll be ready to play me. It will be a long match, she will get a lot of balls back, but so am I. I’ll be ready.”

So far, so good but as the tournament began, most of the pundits and the majority of the bystanders were not tipping Rafa Nadal to win. This was as near to sacrilege as tennis could ever come.

Rafael Nadal prior to play Jahor Herassimau.

The 12-time and defending champion not the favourite? Are you mad? But, then, again, Rafa was not bigging up his chances, either: it was cold, it was slow, the balls were heavy, the clay was sodden – this was not the Roland Garros he had dominated for all but all but three years in the past 15. The pundits and the fans, then, took their cue from Rafa – this wasn’t his year, obviously.

The fact that he lost to Diego Schwartzman in the quarter-finals in Rome was also another key for the nay-sayers. That must surely prove that Rafa is not the man he was, not when he is playing on clay at this time of year. But Rafa begs to differ: he started well in Rome and then he was beaten by a better bloke on the day. Nothing unusual there, he thought. And then he went home to work on what went wrong and what he could put right.

“Six months without playing a single tennis match is not easy,” he said. “I said in Rome when I played the first two matches well, I said, OK, don’t believe things are going to be like this. I know how difficult are the comebacks.

“That day I was not able to win that match, and sometimes that’s the key. These kind of days that are challenging you and these kind of days that you don’t play your best, the opponent is playing well.

“I had my chance in the end of the second set but I was not able to confirm the break back I had a couple of times. Then if I win that match, nobody can tell you that I will not be here with the title of Rome.

“That day Diego was better than me. I was not enough solid, and the serve was not good at all.

“I am trying to serve with high percentage. That’s the first step that I have to do. When I know that I can have a big percentage of first serves, then is the moment to increase the speed and increase the aggressiveness on the serve, no?

“Step by step. Today was the first step. Tomorrow, another day for practice. That’s the only thing that I try to look at this tournament, no? Try to be happy about every single improve and try to give me a chance to be better every day.”

It sounded like a side swipe at Novak Djokovic – that if Rafa had beaten Diego, he would have won the title – but Rafa doesn’t do side swipes. What he does do is tell the truth. Djokovic was not at his blistering best in Rome but he found a way to win. That is what champions do. But if Rafa had been at his best against a grinding Djokovic, he clearly thinks he could have won. And if he can find his form in the next few days – and beating Egor Gerasimov 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 on Monday was a start – he still believes that a 13th Roland Garros is possible.

At last Roland Garros is getting back to normal.