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Nadal fires up the French crowd in historic bid

By Luke Brown

It takes something particularly special indeed for the normally partisan Parisian crowd to greet a foreign player with a louder cheer than the one given to a home hope.

When a squinting Benoît Paire emerged onto a sun-drenched Court Suzanne Lenglen yesterday, the cheers and stomping of feet almost caused a tremor. When Rafael Nadal followed him out shortly afterwards, it was more like an eruption.

Nadal has history in his sights at Roland Garros this year. Victory here in Paris would see him win his 15th Grand Slam, lifting him above Pete Sampras and behind only Roger Federer on the list of all-time Slam titles.

But it would also importantly mean something else: La Decima. It is a feat never before achieved on the men's tour; a level of dominance to rival Margaret Court's 11 Australian Open titles.

For a long while, it looked as though the opportunity to win for a 10th time in Paris had passed Nadal by. His quarter-final defeat to Novak Djokovic in 2015 - just his second loss in 70 matches at Roland Garros - understandably prompted concern in his camp. But it was his exit from last year's tournament, because of injury, that really fuelled the fear that Nadal had won his last major honour.

He would end up finishing the 2016 season having failed to reach the semi-finals of a Grand Slam in over two years, struggling with a persistent wrist injury and in real danger of dropping outside the top 10. With his 31st birthday fast approaching, and struggling to maintain fitness, the end appeared to be in sight.

But Nadal has always been a fighter. He started the new season in scintillating form, finishing as the runner-up at the Australian Open and winning three of the four clay-court tune-ups preceding Roland Garros.

And when a similarly revitalised Roger Federer announced that he was skipping the clay-court swing to focus on winning Wimbledon, Nadal was quickly installed as the favourite to win in France.

He got his tournament off to an almost perfect start yesterday, rapidly dispatching the experienced clay-courter Paire 6-1 6-4 6-1.

Nadal was in no mood to contentedly reflect on a job well done.

"I feel that some moments I was not serving well," he said.

"I need to be very focused on the serve in my next match because returning can be tough and I need to play very solid.

"For me, it's important to serve a little bit better. The rest of the things I am happy with."

Defending champion Novak Djokovic beat Marcel Granollers 6-3 6-4 6-2 under the watchful eye of new coach Andre Agassi.

Nadal and Djokovic are on a collision course for the semis and the Serb remains the man most likely to halt Nadal in his pursuit of history.

Djokovic said of Agassi: "He's going to stay, I hope, until the end of this week. But then he has to leave because he has some things that he cannot reschedule. I'm going to try to use the time spent with him as best as we can. So far plenty of information, plenty of things to process. I'm really enjoying it.

"It's hopefully something that can be long term."

There was an emotional win for American Steve Johnson, who defeated Yuichi Sugita in five tough sets, 6-3 6-3 6-7 6-7 6-3.

Johnson's father, also called Steve, died suddenly earlier this month at the age of just 58.

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