PARIS (Reuters) - It was lunchtime, so banks of empty green seats provided the backdrop for Spaniard Rafael Nadal’s return to his favourite Philippe Chatrier Court stomping ground on Thursday.
But those preferring the Roland Garros hospitality to watching the nine-times French Open champion go to work on hapless second-round opponent Facundo Bagnis missed a feast of the clay court arts.
Nadal dropped his first service game but thereafter was faultless as he outclassed the 99th-ranked Argentine to join seven other men with 200 Grand Slam match wins.
Striking the ball with venom and depth off both wings, Nadal romped to a 6-3 6-0 6-3 victory, meaning he has only dropped nine games so far at the tournament he owned for a decade.
His last appearance on Chatrier was a year ago when he was overwhelmed by Novak Djokovic - a match many thought signalled the end of Nadal’s dominance on the Parisian clay courts.
Nadal took his clay court title haul to 49 with triumphs in Monte Carlo and Barcelona this year before optimism was tempered somewhat by defeats to Djokovic and Andy Murray in Madrid and Rome in the build-up to the French Open.
Nadal’s demolitions of Sam Groth and Bagnis at Roland Garros will not have world number one Djokovic, a likely semi-final foe, quaking in his boots. But there were clear signs of Nadal’s forehand getting back to somewhere near its destructive best.
He struck 12 clean winners on that side and even when Bagnis could get it back, the depth and spin Nadal was achieving meant he could dominate rallies the way he used to when he skittled all comers here for a decade.
Nadal, 30 next week, avoids making rash predictions, sticking to the old mantra of one round at a time.
But he clearly believes he can embellish his legend here.
“Each year is different. Things keep on changing. We have a new story to write,” world number five Nadal, who could become the first player to win the same major 10 times in the professional era, told reporters.
“The most important thing today is a victory in the second round, more than the 200 victories, no? That’s only another number, and that’s it,” Nadal said.
“I‘m happy the way that I‘m playing. Let’s see if I‘m able to play the same or a little bit better. I know I have to play at a very high level in order to go deep.”
Nadal goes against fellow Spaniard Marcel Granollers next.
Additional reporting by Pritha Sarkar; Editing by Mark Heinrich