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French Open restores faith in Rafa

PARIS -- He is only three days shy of his 28th birthday, but when there is not a tennis ball directly in his path, Rafael Nadal moves like a man twice his age.

Remember how he used to charge from the changeover chair to the baseline at the start of matches? Now, he does a perfunctory semijog and is walking by the time he hits the tape.

This is the fallout of his exhausting, full-tilt physical game, and it will likely shave a few years off the backside of his career. But for all the physical issues Nadal has endured -- his knees remain an unstable mystery -- once he started playing here at Roland Garros, the charming venue was his.

After missing his first two opportunities (elbow and ankle issues), he has won an extraordinary 62 of his 63 matches. His 31st in a row came against Argentina's Leonardo Mayer and the score was 6-2, 7-5, 6-2. Nadal hit 29 winners and only 10 unforced errors, an exceedingly clean run around this red-clay track.

The only glitch? Like many old men, Rafa has a bad back.

"Well, I don't usually lie," he said in postmatch press conference. "My back was hurting a little, and this is what I said on day No. 1. During the second day, as well. So that's why I served more slowly, since I started feeling the pain."

Nadal did not seem overly concerned.

The No. 1 seed and eight-time champion came here with a particularly patchy spring on the dirt, but he's looking like the best player in his half of the draw -- by far. In seven days, he'll probably be playing No. 2 Novak Djokovic for the title.

Nadal plays No. 83-ranked Dusan Lajovic in the fourth round Monday and then, presumably, No. 5 seed David Ferrer in the quarterfinals. It was Ferrer who beat Nadal in the quarterfinals at Monte Carlo in mid-April.

A Grand exit

No. 5 seed Petra Kvitova and No. 11 Ana Ivanovic are former Grand Slam champions, but like Serena Williams and Li Na, they are not going to be around for the second week of the French Open.

Kvitova won the first set against Svetlana Kuznetsova, but lost a 6-7 (3), 6-1, 9-7 grueling match that went 3 hours, 13 minutes. Ivanovic, who won here in 2008, fell to No. 23 seed Lucie Safarova 6-3, 6-3.

"Everyone was talking about seeds coming out, but not in my part [of the draw]," Ivanovic said. "I had really tough opponent today. I lost to her a lot of times before. I'm very disappointed about my loss today."

The matchup between Kvitova and Kuznetsova was a slugfest, with Kvitova virtually knocking herself out of the match. She had 65 unforced errors (versus 49 winners) and stroked an alarming 11 double faults. Their match on Court Philippe Chatrier lasted longer than the first two women's matches combined on Court Suzanne Lenglen.

The two winners, Kuznetsova and Safarova, will meet Monday in a fourth-round match. Kuznetsova, the 2009 champion at Roland Garros, will be one of only two former major champions left in the women's draw, since Maria Sharapova and Sam Stosur play Sunday.

Woman of a certain age

Romanian Simona Halep is all of 22 -- the age of a typical American college senior -- but relative to the crop of upstarts that are populating the second week here, she's feeling kind of old.

"I am not that young," she said, smiling. "More players are younger than me now at this level."

That may be, but none of them are seen as contenders for the title. The No. 4-seeded Halep, who defeated Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor 6-3, 6-0 in a scant 64 minutes, is probably the favorite to come out of the bottom half of the draw. That might thrust her opposite Maria Sharapova in the final.

Torro-Flor was unable to convert even one of her eight break-point opportunities. Halep, meanwhile, has the best record over the last year among the players left in the draw.

"The first three seeded, they lost," Halep said. "That's a surprise for everyone. Is not easy to be the first seeded now during the tournament. But I try just to keep out from me the pressure and just to play every match, because here the Grand Slam every match is difficult.

"So, yeah, maybe it's a moment for us, because we are younger and we play more relaxed on court. We want to be like great champion at all the tournaments. Is not easy for us, but I think it's easier than older players."

Etcetera

No. 5 seed David Ferrer waxed No. 32 seed Andreas Seppi 6-2, 7-6 (2), 6-3. He will take on No. 19 seed Kevin Anderson, who beat a retiring Ivo Karlovic after one set, in Monday's fourth round ... Unseeded Marcel Granollers of Spain was the last man into the round of 16 in the bottom half of the draw, completing a 6-7 (5), 6-2, 7-6 (4), 7-5 victory over Martin Klizan ... The most unlikely player in the round of 16? That would be qualifier Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands. The WTA's No. 148 defeated Silvia Soler-Espinosa 6-2, 6-1 ... In a match that was destined to go five sets when it was arranged a few days ago, the irrepressible and elastic Gael Monfils defeated Fabio Fognini 5-7, 6-2, 6-4, 0-6, 6-2 in a crisp 3 hours, 24 minutes.