PARIS – Rafael Nadal once again showed he is the man to beat at the French Open after putting down a brief rebellion from Argentine Leonardo Mayer to win 6-2, 7-5, 6-2 and reach the fourth round despite a sore back on Saturday.
Mayer went for his shots in a tense second set and broke the world No. 1 back for 4-4, only for the Spaniard to regain control in commanding fashion.
“It is for me a very emotional thing when I am on (court Philippe) Chatrier, a lot of memories come to my mind,” said Nadal, who made only 10 unforced errors with just two coming in a masterful opening set.
One moment that may live long in the memory occurred in the second set when the defending champion recovered after being wrong-footed by Mayer to pull off a perfect backhand lob to break decisively for a 6-5 lead.
He followed up with a game at love, sealing the set with a jaw-dropping forehand passing shot before steaming through the third and ending the contest with a service winner.
In the aftermath, Nadal revealed he was suffering with back pains, but would not be drawn on the details.
“Well, I would rather not talk about my back. I’ll play as best as I can. I’ll put up a good fight to try and win,” he said.
Nadal next faces Serbian Dusan Lajovic, who beat American Jack Sock 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 and, like the Spaniard, has yet to drop a set.
Should he prevail, he could face compatriot David Ferrer in the quarterfinal, the man he beat to claim last year’s title and one of three men to have beaten him on the red dust this season.
A possible semifinal encounter against Andy Murray was hanging in the balance, however, after the Wimbledon champion’s encounter with 28th seed Philipp Kohlschreiber was suspended due to bad light in the fifth set.
Seventh seed Murray and German Kohlschreiber were locked together at 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 7-7 when play was interrupted after the Briton had blown a 4-2 lead in the fourth set.
The fifth-seeded Ferrer continued his stroll through the draw with a 6-2, 7-6 (7-2), 6-3 win against Italian Andreas Seppi.
He next faces South African 19th seed Kevin Anderson who went through after Croatia’s Ivo Karlovic retired because of a sore back.
While Nadal and Ferrer produced flawless performances, Italian 14th seed Fabio Fognini and Frenchman Gael Monfils made 137 unforced errors between them — in 278 points — during a poor quality third-round clash.
The local favorite won 5-7, 6-2, 6-4, 0-6, 6-2 and will now meet Spain’s Guillermo Garcia Lopez.
The match between Frenchman Richard Gasquet, the 12th seed, and Spanish 24th seed Fernando Verdasco was interrupted because of bad light with Verdasco leading 6-3, 6-2, 2-2.
Earlier, Simona Halep had too many tricks up her sleeve for Spaniard Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor as the fourth seed glided into the fourth round with a 6-3, 6-0 win.
The wily Romanian, the highest seed left in the draw after Serena Williams, Li Na and Agnieszka Radwanska were knocked out early, found perfect angles and defended superbly to counter Torro-Flor’s powerful forehand in Paris.