- Kamakshi Tandon
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PARIS -- For Rafael Nadal, this French Open has been a good place for running into old friends. And beating the daylights out of them.
In the third round, it was qualifier Eduardo Schwank, who was more of a Nadal fan than foe. After losing the match in straight sets, Schwank approached Nadal in the locker room and asked if he could get the shirt Nadal had worn during the match signed as a souvenir. Nadal, not surprisingly, obliged. As the Spaniard wrote in his recent autobiography (which Schwank has read), he finds it hard to refuse an autograph request.
Next up for Nadal was No. 13 seed Juan Monaco, who Nadal described as a frequent practice partner and "one of the players I really like on the tour."
The result? 6-2, 6-0, 6-0.
At least he felt bad about it. "I'm very sorry for him," Nadal said in Spanish. "What can I say? Well, I would tell him, 'Don't worry. It's going to be better afterwards. You'll feel better afterward.'"
After letting up a bit against Schwank in the third set of the previous match, Nadal was careful not to do the same against Monaco. "In a way, you feel a little bit sad for the opponent because I know he start to accept that you are losing 6 0, 5-0," he said. "But, at the same time, tennis isn't a sport that you can relax one moment, no?"
"I lost a match this year in Madrid against [Fernando] Verdasco with 5-2 in the third, two breaks. I tried to be focused and tried to finish the match as quick as possible.
"And that's the best way to do it, to respect the opponent, to respect everybody -- my opinion. Try my best in every moment."
It's not an unusual situation for Nadal to be facing a friend in a match. Despite his superstar status, the six-time French Open champion is a popular figure in the locker room. Nadal still hangs out with the other players watching a soccer match or playing video games. He is friendly with many of the Spanish-speaking players, from countrymen David Ferrer and Marc Lopez to Argentines David Nalbandian and Juan Martin del Potro. In their company, Nadal relaxes. He's a jokester and just one of the boys.
But when they walk on court, it's a different story. Nadal is merciless. He won every one of his past 12 matches against Argentines and 15 out of 16 against Spaniards.
The reunion tour continues for Nadal as he faces fellow Spaniard Nicolas Almagro, the No. 12 seed, in the quarterfinals, and then potentially another compatriot, No. 6 seed Ferrer, in the semifinals.
Ferrer is a close friend, who found himself in a bit of trouble after writing "Happy birthday" instead of his autograph on the camera after winning his fourth-round match. Ferrer had to clarify that it was for his girlfriend's birthday, not Nadal's, which was on Sunday. "You know, I like Rafa very much, but not that much," Ferrer joked.
Though Ferrer has pushed Nadal to the brink in a few sets this year, Ferrer has fallen just a little short each time.
As for Almagro, he's really a familiar face for Nadal at the French Open. The two will be meeting at this event for the third time, every other year. The first was in 2008, before which Almagro said: "He was a great friend. Well, he still is -- might change on Tuesday -- but when we were young we played a lot in Spain, and we have many things in common.
"I met him for the first time this year, but we started talking to each other on a daily basis, exchanging text messages, and he told me many things that I'll keep for myself."
After the 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 blowout was complete, Almagro was asked what happened. "Didn't you see?" Almagro replied. "I think there was a guy called Nadal on the center court, and he played much better than me all the time, a bit like a flash.
"I probably didn't play my best tennis, but, you know, when Rafa plays like this, there is nothing you can say. Just congratulate him, wish him a 'happy birthday,' and wish him all the best for the rest of this tournament."
In 2010, Almagro talked up his chances a bit more, and Almagro forced a couple of tiebreaks before losing 7-6(2), 7-6(3), 6-4. This year, Almagro, now 26, has been solid, flirting with the top 10 and defying his reputation as a bit of a hothead. He's a different person since he last faced Nadal, Almagro insists.
"Many, many things have changed in my life," he said. "You might wonder, perhaps, why there have been changes at the best moment in my career, but this is something I have felt within myself, something I thought about beforehand, something I discussed at length with my family.
"I wanted to be closer to my family. I needed to be with my nephews, my nieces. And, you know, I was traveling all the time. I was too far away from home. It was difficult for me. But now that I feel closer to my family, I can take my car and visit them when I want. I feel a lot better."
And instead of Nadal, he's now turning more to a different Spanish French Open champion.
"It's also thanks to the team who's with me and more particularly one person, probably. I was thinking about Juan Carlos Ferrero who has helped me a lot through these difficult moments," Almagro said. "I discuss a lot with him. You know, when you're close to a former No. 1 and when you're with a Roland Garros champion, there is a lot you can learn. This is what I want to learn day in and day out. I know I still have a lot to learn from him."
The little added distance may help Almagro challenge Nadal a little more this time. He also has more weapons than the typical clay-court specialist and is playing well. But is even all that enough? Unlike his early struggles last year, Nadal has been formidable at this year's event, and dropped only 19 games on his way to the quarterfinals. "I feel really comfortable, really at ease," he said.
And why shouldn't he? It's good to be among friends. Especially those you keep beating.