What’s it like to play Nadal at French Open? ‘Rough’

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PARIS (AP) Like so many others who have faced Rafael Nadal, Yannick Hanfmann thought he had a plan. Until, that is, tennis’ greatest clay-court player dismantled it stroke by stroke on the red dirt where he has won 11 French Open titles.

“After the first two sets, you’re thinking like, `Damn,”‘ Hanfmann, a German ranked 184th, said after losing 6-2, 6-1, 6-3 on Monday. “It’s rough.”

The 27-year-old former college player at the University of Southern California, who won three qualifying matches to earn the dubious honor of being Nadal’s punching bag in the opening round of the main draw, didn’t make a fool of himself in what was his first career match on the showcase Court Philippe Chatrier.

Indeed, in what would have amounted to a minor earthquake in the arena that is practically Nadal’s backyard had he converted, Hanfmann even had four chances to break the Spaniard in his first service game.

But the experience of facing Nadal for the first time, and at Roland Garros to boot, can do strange things to the uninitiated.

Before the first point was played, as the players broke away from their pre-match photo session with two kids at the net, Hanfmann stuck out a hand, looking for a shake. Later, even he couldn’t explain why he had done it, and not waited until the end of the match, as is traditional. Had Nadal blanked him, the memes could have gone viral. Thankfully, the winner of 17 major titles didn’t leave Hanfmann hanging and instead took his outstretched hand.

“That was weird. I don’t know what I was doing, to be honest. I was a bit out of it there,” Hanfmann said. “I saw him shaking this kid’s hand and the ref’s hand and I then stuck out my hand. I don’t know why.”

Looking ahead, the one hour and 57 minutes of tennis in a brisk breeze didn’t reveal any hitherto unknown secrets about how Nadal is feeling in his pursuit again this year of the Musketeers’ cup. After his unsteady first game, the 32-year-old was not pressed hard or long enough to gauge much about what the next two weeks might have in store.

But Hanfmann got some answers.

Having only ever watched Nadal, he’d been curious to find out for himself exactly what it feels like to be on the receiving end of the left-hander’s fiercely spun shots.

Well, now he knows.

“That was kind of cool,” Hanfmann said, showing he can put a positive spin on things, too. “It just comes off the ground really fast and high, fast high balls. You think you’re set up for it, with the backhand or forehand or whatever, but then you’re still on the back foot and maybe mishit it a little because it’s very spinny.”

And like so many of Nadal’s opponents, he also was struck by just how hard it is to unsettle him.

“You just feel like, `OK, here I played a great shot,’ but then there’s a great answer from him,” Hanfmann said.

Roger Federer’s first-round opponent, 74th-ranked Lorenzo Sonego, said the same sort of thing after losing 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 on Sunday to the 20-time major champion.

And top-seeded Novak Djokovic made light work Monday of his first-round match, a 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 victory over Hubert Hurkacz, ranked No. 44, from Poland.

The consolation?

Once the sting of defeat has gone, all three will have a story to tell.

“In a couple weeks, years, of course,” Hanfmann said. “Yeah, I mean, to play him and, you know, now I know how it feels, kind of. You know, to have a guy like him, he has such a unique game on clay.”