Nadal takes domination on clay to new heights

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The Independent Online

It was no doubt the first time Rafael Nadal has been presented with a trophy after just one victory and it will be a surprise if it is the only prize he takes home from this year's French Open. The Spanish teenager won his opening match against Sweden's Robin Soderling 6-2, 7-5, 6-1 here last night, but it is another statistic that will go into the history books.

This was Nadal's 54th successive victory on clay, breaking the 29-year-old record set by Guillermo Vilas, who was on Philippe Chatrier Court to witness his milestone being passed. After the match the Argentinian presented Nadal with a glass trophy featuring a cross-section of the different layers of a clay court.

Apart from a brief spell in the middle of the second set Soderling rarely looked capable of denying Nadal his record. On a cold and blustery day the conditions gave the Spaniard as much trouble as his opponent. Gusts of wind blew clouds of dust around the court and the players had to deal with brief spells of rain.

Nothing, however, was going to stop Nadal, whose extraordinary run began 13 months ago after he was beaten in the quarter-finals at Valencia by Igor Andreev. He responded by winning successive tournaments in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome, Paris, Bastad and Stuttgart and has already successfully defended the first three of those crowns this year. Roger Federer, whom Nadal beat recently in the finals at Monte Carlo and Rome, looks to be the only player capable of stopping him.

"I thought about the record when I started to get close, so obviously it's something that you want to go for," Nadal said. "Fifty-four victories is special because it was very difficult to achieve. It's been a lot of tournaments and a lot of matches. It's special because you might have bad luck on any day. It means a lot to me to be part of history."

Vilas said he was pleased to lose his record to an "exceptional person" but could not resist pointing out that the Spaniard had not beaten his 46-match winning run on all surfaces or his record of 14 titles in one year. He also said that when his 53-match run ended he "did not lose to a player but to a racket", referring to an illegal double-strung racket with which Ilie Nastase beat him at Aix-en-Provence. "I couldn't play him," Vilas said. "When I was 6-1, 7-5 down, I threw in the sponge."

Greg Rusedski is looking forward to the green grass of home after his latest venture on red clay ended in all too familiar fashion. The British No 1 was beaten 6-3, 6-1, 4-6, 7-6 by Paul Capdeville, a 23-year-old Chilean making only his second appearance at a Grand Slam tournament. Rusedski, 32, has not gone beyond the first round here for five years, although his performances earlier this month in the Rome Masters, when he won two matches in a row on clay for the first time this century, had given some cause for optimism.

Struggling with the conditions, Rusedski attempted in vain to play the Chilean at his own clay-court game for two sets before deciding to go on the attack. It made a match of it, but Rusedski was never ahead in the deciding tie-break, which Capdeville won 9-7 as the Briton missed two forehands in succession.

Rusedski, who is hoping to find a partner before today's lunchtime deadline to play in the doubles here before heading home to prepare for the grass courts of Queen's Club, Nottingham and Wimbledon, admits he can see the end of his career approaching. "I don't know if that's my last tango in Paris, but it's definitely getting close," he said.

Tim Henman's next opponent will be the Russian Dmitry Tursunov, who beat Jiri Novak in straight sets yesterday. Tursunov, the world No 134, has knocked Henman out of two of the last three Grand Slam tournaments, including Wimbledon last summer. The third Briton in the men's singles, Andy Murray, opens his campaign today on the main show court against Gael Monfils, another of the game's most promising teenagers.

On a day of few surprises Venus Williams and Kim Clijsters both went through to the second round after patchy victories over limited opposition.

Clijsters overcame France's Virginie Razzano 6-0, 7-6, while Williams, playing only her 10th match of the year, beat Austria's Sybille Bammer 6-4, 6-3.

British hopes in Paris

First round: v Gaël Monfils (Fr), today.

Second round: v Edgardo Massa (Arg) or Dick Norman (Bel), to be scheduled

First round: beat Kenneth Carlsen (Den) 6-3 6-4 4-6 6-4 (Sunday).

Second round: v Dmitri Tursunov (Rus), tomorrow

First round: lost yesterday to Paul Capdeville (Chile) 3-6 1-6 6-4 6-7