French Open 2014: Rafael Nadal prevails over Leonardo Mayer but progress proves painful

World No 1 wins easily enough to make it through to the fourth round of the French Open in Paris but back problems are forcing the Spaniard to alter his game to go the distance

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The Independent Online

When doubts are cast over Rafael Nadal’s fitness they usually concern his knees but the world No 1 revealed at the French Open here last night that back pain is forcing him to change his game. After beating Argentina’s Leonardo Mayer 6-2 7-5 6-2 to secure his place in the fourth round for the 10th year in succession, Nadal admitted that he had slowed down his serve because he had been troubled by a back problem.

Nadal, who hurt his back in losing to Stanislas Wawrinka in the Australian Open final in January, said he had also been suffering here. “I felt it a little bit from the beginning [of the tournament],” Nadal said. “In the second match I was not serving that fast either.”

Nadal, who had his back taped, was reluctant to go into further details. “I’d rather not talk about my back,” he said at his post-match press conference. “I’ll do my best. I’ll play as well as I can. I’ll put up a good fight to try and win. My back is not that important. I wouldn’t really like to give you too many details.” The back problem could explain why Nadal had not looked at his best in the build-up to his attempt to win the title here for the ninth time. Since winning his maiden title in Poland in 2004 the Spaniard has suffered only 15 defeats on clay, but three of them have come this year.

In winning his first three matches here, nevertheless, Nadal has not dropped a set. His latest win extended his record to 62 victories in his 63 matches on these courts, his only loss having come in the fourth round five years ago, when he was beaten by Robin Soderling.

The only time Nadal looked in any danger against Mayer was in the second set, when the Argentinian retrieved an early break and then went 5-4 ahead. Two games later, however, the Spaniard broke again with a superb half-volley lob and went on to serve out for the set. He had few problems in the third set and it would be a surprise if Serbia’s Dusan Lajovic causes him any trouble in the next round.

After the match, Nadal led the crowd in their applause for Jérôme  Golmard, who was watching the match in a wheelchair. The 40-year-old Frenchman, a former world No 22, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease earlier this year. He has set up a fund to help fight the disease.

Players on every other court must have wondered what was happening on Court Suzanne Lenglen given the regular eruptions of noise that emanated from the second show stadium during the afternoon. The answer was simple: Gaël Monfils was playing Fabio Fognini.

Monfils is arguably the sport’s greatest entertainer and the 27-year-old Parisian treated his home fans to a performance remarkable even by his standards. Facing another of the game’s most flamboyant characters, Monfils won 5-7 6-2 6-4 0-6 6-2 after three hours and 24 minutes of great theatre.

“Thank you to everyone,” the Frenchman said in his on-court interview at the end. “It was hard physically and tennis-wise but you carried me through.”

The drama should not have been a surprise given that this was a reprise of an extraordinary five-set encounter between the two men here four years ago. Their second-round match in 2010 was halted in near darkness just before 10pm with Monfils cramping badly after letting slip a two-set lead. When they returned the next day he saved three match points before losing 9-7 in the deciding set of a match Fognini described as the craziest he had  ever played.

Predictably enough, their latest encounter was a mixture of superb shot-making and horrible mistakes. Fognini outscored Monfils in both winners and unforced errors – 43 to 21 and 81 to 56 respectively – after twice letting his opponent back in the match.

The Italian, whose own unpredictable combination of brilliance, petulance and indifference was highlighted during Italy’s Davis Cup victory over Britain two months ago, is a superb clay-court player, but for all his excellence against lesser opponents and on smaller stages, the 27-year-old Italian rarely exceeds expectations at Grand Slam level.

Having gone behind after taking the first set, Fognini seemed to have Monfils at his mercy when he took the fourth in just 24 minutes as the Frenchman struggled with fatigue. Monfils barely looked capable of running and admitted afterwards that he was suffering from tiredness rather than cramp.

The Frenchman, however, made an instant recovery in the deciding set and raced into a 3-0 lead. Fognini, who had a point deducted for racket abuse, fought back to 3-2, only for Monfils to retake control. With the Frenchman whipping the crowd into a frenzy, Fognini’s game fell apart and the match ended in appropriate fashion with the Italian making two horrible forehand errors.

Monfils was asked afterwards whether he could ever hope to be successful at Grand Slam level when his fortunes swayed so dramatically. “For me it’s not about ups and downs,” he said. “It’s more about saving my ass every day.”