PARIS – 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.
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“Rafael,” fellow Spaniard 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 surpassed Nadal’s own mark of 31 and moved him a step closer to a fifth straight title in Paris.
The No. 1-ranked Nadal, who is 63-1 for his career at the tournament, has won all 12 sets he has played in Paris in 2014, dropping a total of 23 games. He was asked whether he would have preferred a more taxing encounter.
“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 mph, with 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.”
Next Nadal takes on No. 5 Ferrer, who eliminated No. 19 Kevin Anderson of South Africa 6-3, 6-3, 6-7 (5-7), 6-1.
Last year’s French Open final is one of 21 losses for Ferrer in 27 matches against Nadal. But Ferrer won their most recent meeting in straight sets, on April 18 at the Monte Carlo Masters.
“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.”
In another quarterfinal, Wimbledon champion Andy Murray will face Gael Monfils of France.
No. 7 Murray beat No. 24 Fernando Verdasco of Spain 6-4, 7-5, 7-6 (7-3). No. 23 Monfils advanced with a 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 victory over 41st-ranked Guillermo Garcia-Lopez of Spain.
Two women’s quarterfinals will be No. 4 Simona Halep of Romania versus 2009 French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia, and 2012 runner-up Sara Errani of Italy against 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.”