Spain’s Rafael Nadal successfully kicked off his bid for a 40th career clay-court title, advancing to the third round of the Mutua Madrid Open with a 6-3, 6-4 victory Wednesday over Benoit Paire.
The 37th-ranked Frenchman adopted an unorthodox strategy aimed at throwing off Nadal’s rhythm, cutting rallies short with numerous drop shots - including 14 in the first set alone - and seeking to end points quickly with flat rockets off his backhand side.
The strategy was effective to a degree, but Nadal’s far superior superior defense and consistency won out against an uncomfortable opponent.
The biggest bright spot for the Spaniard on the day was his service game, as he put 79 percent of his first serves in play and won 74 percent of his first-serve points and 75 percent of his second-serve points.
“That’s an important victory today,” the world No. 5 said afterward. “Each match in this kind of tournament is very demanding from the first round. He was a very uncomfortable opponent. He makes you play quite badly. He doesn’t give you any rhythm. He has one of the best backhands in the circuit, without any doubt.”
Next up for Nadal in the round of 16 will be Russia’s Mikhail Youzhny, who overcame Spaniard Nicolas Almagro 7-6 (7-4), 4-6, 6-2.
The top-ranked Spaniard, world No. 4 David Ferrer, also advanced to the round of 16 Wednesday with a routine 7-5, 6-2 win over Uzbekistan’s Denis Istomin, and will next square off against 35-year-old German Tommy Haas, a 6-3, 7-5 winner over Spain’s Tommy Robredo.
Sixth-seeded Czech Tomas Berdych defeated Poland’s Jerzy Janowicz 6-7 (3-7), 6-3, 6-2, Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga topped the Netherlands’ Robin Haase 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (7-2), and Switzerland’s Stanislas Wawrinka, the No. 15 seed, continued his strong run of form by dismissing Colombia’s Santiago Giraldo 6-3, 6-3.
South African Kevin Anderson, meanwhile, edged Argentina’s Juan Monaco 7-6 (7-5), 3-6, 6-4 and Japan’s Kei Nishikori defeated Serbia’s Viktor Troicki 7-5, 6-2.
Also Wednesday, two of the higher seeds in the women’s draw were eliminated: Belarus’ Victoria Azarenka, the No. 3 seed, fell to Russia’s Ekaterina Makarova 1-6, 6-2, 6-3 and Slovakia’s Daniela Hantuchova rallied past eighth-seeded Czech Petra Kvitova 2-6, 6-2, 6-3.
The Mutua Madrid Open is one of the biggest clay-court events on the ATP and WTA calendars and a key tune-up for the French Open, which gets underway later this month.