Jordan Thompson comes to terms with futile task of winning in ‘Rafa’s kingdom’

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<span>Photograph: Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images

Jordan Thompson will always be part of a world record in men’s tennis, barring the emergence of a force of nature even more formidable than the legendary “Big Three”. The problem for the Australian is that by becoming Rafael Nadal’s 106th victim at Roland Garros on Monday, he is now the answer to a tennis trivia question.

Who was the hapless opponent skewered on a court Thompson branded “Rafa’s kingdom” on the day the Spaniard passed the 105 matches Roger Federer has won at Wimbledon? Thompson, the Sydneysider sporting a moustache similar to the Nintendo mascot Mario, is the answer.

Related: Rafael Nadal sinks Jordan Thompson to launch bid for 14th French Open title

Mild-mannered without a racket in his hand but wildly competitive when on the court, the Australian threw everything he had at the 21-time major winner yet still fell far, far short.

When preparing on Saturday for his clash with the 13-time French Open champion, he was swearing and cursing and giving his all, all the while mindful of the sense of futility. No matter how well he played on Monday, his French Open would end on Stade Philippe Chatrier against Nadal, the greatest clay court player ever.

So it proved with a 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 loss in just over two hours. That was enough time to show Nadal, who turns 36 on semi-finals day in Paris, is not hindered at this stage by the chronic foot problem that had flared again recently in Rome. It was also ample to demonstrate again just how difficult it is for rivals against the Spaniard on his favourite court in a tournament he has lost at just three times.

As Thompson noted, facing Nadal on Court Philippe Chatrier is the toughest test in tennis. The Australian Davis Cup stalwart started well, hitting a superb forehand winner on the run after being dragged from one side of the court to the other in what was his high point for the match.

“I thought I was in trouble going out there and then, after that first point, I don’t know how I won it, but I was thinking ‘Shit. That’s what I’ve got to do to win a point?’,” he said.

Rafael Nadal was imperious in his opening match at the 2022 French Open.
Rafael Nadal was imperious in his opening match at the 2022 French Open. Photograph: Adam Pretty/Getty Images

About an hour later he provided the perfect illustration of what it feels like to play Nadal when posing inadvertently for a photograph that spread quickly on social media. After an epic point, the Sydneysider stumbled in disbelief to the net, leaning on it in despair and resting his head on his forearms pondering how another point had just gone begging.

Holding game point on his serve when trailing 6-2 and 2-0, he had played a ripper of a rally. On the third shot, he clubbed a backhand down the line to set the Spaniard scrambling. With the court open, Thompson thundered an off-forehand which would have been too good for most players, but Nadal demonstrated incredible court coverage to reach it.

Thompson then whipped a forehand back to the other side of the court and followed the ball in the net, a logical play given Nadal had no right to be anywhere near retrieving it. Somehow Nadal deftly sliced a backhand low to Thompson and followed up with an angle so acute Thompson’s lunge almost catapulted him into the net post he sought solace from.

This was akin to playing against a brick wall. Or at the very least, the human version of playing the old arcade game pong, with the computer set to impenetrable mode.

“I remember looking up at my camp and saying I’ve hit one of the biggest forehands I’ve hit [’yet] it came back. I hit a drive volley. It came back even harder and I wasn’t even close to the ball,” Thompson said. “I just looked up and thought, ‘I did everything I could and still I wasn’t even close to winning that point’. Sometimes you think, ‘What can I do?’ And I’m not the only one.”

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Simply trying to win a point against Nadal is draining when he is in the mood he was in on Monday. The dimensions of centre court at Roland Garros add a dimension to the difficulty. Every tennis court is 23.77m long and 10.97m wide. But some appear far bigger than others.

Nadal’s kingdom in Paris is one given the greater distance between the lines and sponsorship hoardings, which allows him to stand further back than he would on more regular tour courts. This gives more time to neutralise a rival’s serve, as Thompson ruefully noted, and makes him even more formidable an opponent.

“For sure. I hit a couple of kick serves [and] on the back courts they would be in the side fence, but here it’s not even close to the side fence,” he said. “He’s got plenty of room and that makes it even tougher to get a free point … because he’s so far back and the court’s big.”

With the match one hour and 13 minutes old, the Australian finally snapped after dropping serve again when missing a backhand volley. He paused and took two steps before clubbing a ball all the way out of the stadium, which is no mean feat given the grandstand dimensions of one of the world’s great courts. It did not ease the stress.

“It’s just relentless pressure,” Thompson said.

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