Nadal digs deep to hit new heights

Young Spaniard in truly heroic form to subdue Mathieu and all of France in a five-hour epic
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The Independent Online

In terms of games played and time taken, this third-round match was nowhere approaching an epic. But the intensity and heart of both Nadal and his 24-year-old opponent were indisputably of epic proportions.

There have been many historic and unforgettable contests since Roland Garros was built in the 1920s to accommodate the demand generated by France's legendary Four Musketeers - Lacoste, Brugnon, Cochet and Borotra - but this was the finest I have seen in 30 years of covering the French Open.

Nadal even overcame a third- set encounter with a bothersome segment of banana, which needed treatment before it could be dislodged from his throat, to batter into submission an opponent who made his world ranking of 32 look ridiculous as he did to Nadal what the Spaniard has done to so many opponents by taking the fight to him, storming the ramparts and, at times, leaving the champion clinging on as if in the aftermath of a shipwreck.

Already in possession of the world record for successive wins on clay, and chasing his 56th straight victory on the red stuff, Nadal was taken aback as Mathieu, someone who has suffered well in excess of the normal ration of injuries, attacked the Pirate of Paris, rushing the net at every opportunity.

Nadal, the birthday boy who had come on court bearing cannon rather than candles, was outgunned at times in a bizarre opening of four consecutive breaks of serve. But of the subsequent three breaks in that one- and-a-half-hour first set Mathieu claimed a crucial two.

Much as Nadal's muscles rippled and his raking shots sent puffs of clay flying, it was Mathieu who took the eye with his fearless play. His frequent applications of fist to the heart area may have constituted showmanship but they told a true story.

Nadal's response was, of course, to go even harder into the contest, breaking Mathieu in the fifth game of the second set, following up by holding to love and defending that lead until the set was pocketed and the match levelled. Two hours, 42 minutes gone.

The third set was the most extraordinary of a gripping match, played out in the atmosphere of a Davis Cup final in a biased setting. Nadal led 3-1, Mathieu pegged him back to 3-3, the Spaniard's game-losing double-fault sparking a huge cheer.

In the seventh game a Mathieu serve to the sideline was called good, Nadal marked what he considered the offending spot and when the umpire, Andreas Egli of Switzerland, professed not to be able to spot the mark Nadal covered his face in disbelief, earning boos. Nadal's response was enthralling. Perhaps his greatest gift is to pull off forehands of power and deadly accuracy while running full tilt to his left. He executed two of these to win the game, at which the crowd interrupted proceedings for several minutes with an extended version of the Mexican wave.

Undeterred, Nadal swept the next two games and served for a 2-1 set lead. But with two points played in that game Nadal approached Egli, gesturing that he needed the trainer's attention and indicating he was choking as a result of the banana he had eaten at the changeover. He soon resumed. To boos, of course, but there was no choking on court as he moved to set-point, as he had done in the second set, with an ace, and then saw Mathieu project a backhand wide. Three hours 43 minutes gone.

Something, somebody, had to give. And in the fourth set it was Mathieu. After service breaks were exchanged, with every Nadal error cheered mightily, the Spaniard struck with an assassin's timing, breaking to lead 5-4 on the back of three terrible forehand errors from a tiring and desolate Mathieu.

It was time for the Pirate of Paris to close it out - and he proceeded to do so, moving to match-point with his sixth ace and winning what he called "probably the best match of my life, a fabulous match" as Mathieu floated a backhand clear of the baseline. Mathieu left to resounding cheers, Nadal, not too tired to scribble a few autographs, exited to a mix of boos and cheers - the latter from the Spaniards in the crowd.

On Friday, Kevin Kim had said that playing Nadal was like trying to cross the Sahara on foot. Yesterday Mathieu must have felt like someone challenging Antarctica in the depths of winter on a dog sled. But the right man won. It would have been a shame for Nadal to depart this tournament, especially on his birthday.

If he gets off the treatment table in time, Nadal will face Lleyton Hewitt in the fourth round tomorrow. It promises to be interesting, what with Hewitt overcoming an ankle injury to see off Dominik Hrbaty 7-6 6-2 6-2. There will be no prisoners taken, no whingeing permitted.