World #1 Rafael Nadal will take to the court for the first time during this year’s North American hard court swing when he takes on the mercurial Frenchman Benoit Paire in the second round in Toronto. Of all the major hard court tournaments, the Canadian Open has been one of his happiest hunting grounds and he has won three titles in the Great White North. But he will know that Paire has the quality to beat him and this match is far from a sure thing. Who will come out on top?
Paire may have the talent to shock the best in the game, but his head-to-head against Nadal makes for grim reading. They have met three times, and the Frenchman is yet to claim a set. Their rivalry began five years ago on the clay courts in Barcelona where Nadal won 7-6 6-2 before he beat Paire again a week later in Madrid 6-3 6-4. Their most recent clash came in Paris last year where Nadal delivered a dominant performance to win 6-1 6-4 6-1.
Path to the second round
Nadal, as the top seed in Canada, received a first-round bye. His most recent competitive outing pitted him against Novak Djokovic in his first semifinal at Wimbledon since 2011. It proved to be a classic, with Djokovic making the better start to win the opener and Nadal fighting back to level. Djokovic then won the third set in a tiebreak before the Wimbledon curfew forced them to return the next day. Nadal swiftly took it to a decider, but Djokovic toughed out the win 10-8 in the fifth.
Paire has been rather busier since Wimbledon, playing in Umag, Hamburg and Washington. At the latter he earned a substantial fine for his loss of composure in defeat to Marcos Baghdatis in the first round, but he looked to have moved past the outburst in Toronto where he took on Jared Donaldson. The American gave his best as ever, but Paire played excellent tennis from start to finish to win through to the second round 6-3 6-4.
How do they match up?
Nadal’s qualities as a baseliner are rightly legendary. He defends and covers the court superbly, with only Djokovic his equal amongst his contemporaries. He also has plenty of attacking power, most notably his forehand which he hits with a venomous combination of pace and spin. Though he prefers to hit it cross-court, on a hard court it is at its most effective when deployed down the line, to exploit the space left by players trying to defend against it cross-court.
It would serve Nadal well to use it down the line as often as he can against Paire, as doing so will keep the ball away from the Frenchman’s backhand, his best shot. Paire strikes his two-hander as powerfully as anyone and he is comfortable defending that side. His forehand, however, is far less reliable. His technique leaves much to be desired and Nadal would do well to target that wing, especially with his backhand which he was hitting extremely well at Wimbledon.
This is a difficult opening test for Nadal. Although Nadal has won all their previous matches comfortably, all three were contested on clay courts where Paire is significantly less dangerous than he is on a hard court. But Nadal looks to have been rejuvenated by his US Open triumph last year. If he can play as well as he did at Wimbledon, he should have enough to inflict another defeat on Paire, but don’t be surprised if the Frenchman wins a set.