Maybe, just maybe, Rafael Nadal was a tad vulnerable, the thinking went before this French Open.
He had lost three times on his beloved red clay already this year, more defeats than he ever had on the surface before heading to Roland Garros.
Then came an admission, after the Grand Slam tournament’s third round, that his back was bothering him and slowing his serves.
Well, leave it to the eight-time French Open champion’s upcoming quarterfinal opponent — 2013 runner-up David Ferrer, one of the men who beat Nadal on clay this spring — to set the record straight.
“Rafael,” Ferrer said, “is always the favorite.”
Nadal certainly looked the part in the fourth round Monday, when he won 18 points in a row during one stretch en route to beating 83rd-ranked Dusan Lajovic of Serbia, 6-1, 6-2, 6-1, for a record 32nd consecutive victory at the French Open. That broke Nadal’s own mark of 31 and moved him a step closer to a fifth straight title in Paris.
The No. 1-ranked Nadal, now 63-1 for his career at the tournament, has won all 12 sets he’s played in Paris in 2014, dropping 23 games. He was asked whether he would have preferred a more taxing encounter by now.
“You never know what’s better,” replied Nadal, whose audience at Court Philippe Chatrier included musician Prince. “But, in theory, the theory says that it’s better [to] win like this than win longer matches.”
And his back? The one that flummoxed him during a loss in the Australian Open final in January, and then acted up Saturday, leading to an average first serve of 102 mph and top speed of 114 mph? It didn’t appear to be as much of an issue against Lajovic: Nadal averaged 107 mphwith a high of 119 mph.
“My back can be pretty unpredictable,” said Nadal, who wore thick vertical strips of athletic tape under his shirt. “I’m not lying. It’s totally unpredictable. I don’t want to speak too much about it.”
Now he takes on No. 5 Ferrer, who eliminated No. 19 Kevin Anderson of South Africa, 6-3, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-1.
Last year’s French Open final is one of 21 losses for Ferrer in 27 matches against fellow Spaniard Nadal. But Ferrer won their most recent meeting in straight sets, on April 18 at the Monte Carlo Masters.
As Ferrer noted, though, that was a best-of-three-set match. They’ll be playing best-of-five Wednesday.
“Tactically, I will have to be perfect,” Ferrer said. “I hope that I will instill some doubts in Rafa’s mind, but if we play at our best level, both of us, he will be a better player.”
The other quarterfinal on the top half of the draw will be Wimbledon champion Andy Murray against 23rd-seeded Gael Monfils of France.
No. 7 Murray beat No. 24 Fernando Verdasco of Spain, 6-4, 7-5, 7-6 (3), in a match marked by a wild third set. Verdasco held to get within 4-3 with an apparent service winner, but chair umpire Pascal Maria said that point should be replayed because a line judge called the ball out. That prompted Verdasco to begin berating Maria, shouting, “Are you kidding me?” and saying he wanted a tournament supervisor to intervene — until Murray conceded the point.
Later, Verdasco said he’s had several bad experiences with Maria.
“He’s not the kind of umpire I get along with, I can tell you that,” Verdasco said.
Monfils advanced with a much more staid 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 win against 41st-ranked Guillermo Garcia-Lopez of Spain.
Two women’s quarterfinals will be No. 4 Simona Halep of Romania vs. 2009 French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia, and 2012 runner-up Sara Errani of Italy vs. No. 28 Andrea Petkovic of Germany.
“I played aggressive,” Halep said after defeating the last American singles player left in the tournament, No. 15 Sloane Stephens, 6-4, 6-3. “I dominated the match, I think.”
Petkovic’s 1-6, 6-2, 7-5 victory over 148th-ranked Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands was the only three-setter for women Monday, a two-hour struggle filled with 77 unforced errors and 14 service breaks.
Afterward, the well-read Petkovic conducted that rare sports-event news conference sprinkled with references to Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus.
During an earlier on-court interview, Petkovic’s explanation of how she turned the match around was less, well, worldly: “I told myself, ‘Andrea, shut up and play aggressively.’”