PARIS Sometimes the guy looming large ahead of you isn't the problem unless he's Roger Federer.
As soon as the French Open draw came out, the hype began for a potential match between talented teens Rafael Nadal of Spain and Richard Gasquet of France. On Friday, the match turned out easier than Nadal expected.
"Of course. Before the match, I can't think I won 6-4, 6-3, 6-2, no? I think Gasquet and me, we have pressure, and I think the pressure ," said Nadal, who has been attempting to answer a few questions in English all week, before switching to his native language and a translator. "I'll say it in Spanish or else I'll get in trouble. Pressure affected us both, and I think probably, with everything that has been said, he had more pressure than me."
And then, appealing to the English-speaking reporters again
"And I think I play really good today, no?"
On a hot, dry day, when clay dust wafted in the breeze, Gasquet wilted under the pressure of Nadal's powerful shot making.
"The fact that the clay was very dry today, the bounce was rather high, this might have been a problem for him," Nadal said. "Because of these high shots, he might have lost a few points. That might have helped me dominate in this match, make him run around. This favored me."
"Well, that's true, and it didn't help me," Gasquet said. "But on top of that, the heat was really a problem. I had a problem to resist the heat during three sets. I found it very hard today. It's got nothing to do with the surface, it's got little to do with his tennis, but it's very difficult to be 100 percent with such heat."
"I must say it was a difficult match," Nadal said. "Well, I felt quite well previously, with [Xavier] Malisse in particular, but I was probably thinking too much about this particular match. After that I'll just take it one match at a time."
In his next match, Nadal will play another Frenchman, Sebastien Grosjean, who has reached the semifinals of Roland Garros (2001), Wimbledon ('03-'04) and the Australian Open ('01). Grosjean's speed frequently carries him through, but he played a long five-set match to get to the fourth round.
Nadal said the tournament won't get any easier.
"Each match is a different story. I'm improving my game day after day. I'll try to do my best. I know that in any case as time goes on in the tournament, the matches will get more difficult and I could lose at any time."
For now, he's winning and still on track to meet No. 1 Federer in the semifinals. But first, Federer is a problem for Nadal's friend and mentor, Carlos Moya.
When asked Friday if he feels he's the best player in history, Federer started to laugh.
"No," he said. "I'm too young."
But when pressed, he did admit he's on his way.
"Well, if I keep playing like last year, yeah," Federer said. But not every year will be this way; I know that."
Actually, so far, despite not winning the Australian Open, he is playing better than last year.
Federer finished the 2004 season with an amazing .925 winning percentage. As of the third round of the French Open, which he lost to Gustavo Kuerten, Federer had a .895 winning percentage after playing 38 matches. This year, Federer has played 44 matches as of the third round of the French, and his winning percentage is higher: .957.
Those trying to find a chink in Federer's armor haven't had much luck. Part of the interest in Nadal and Gasquet stems from the fact that only Nadal and Marat Safin have taken Federer the distance in five-set play this season although Nadal lost. Gasquet defeated Federer in three sets in Monte Carlo.
It's a very short list. No one else. Roger Federer has no one to fear.
"I'm No. 1. I've beaten everyone," Federer said. "Why should I fear anyone? I respect everyone, that's for sure."
"Well, he doesn't have many doubts," Moya said. "He's only lost two matches so far this year. Obviously, he's feeling very confident. His serve is better than me right now, better forehand, better backhand, better serve and volley. The thing is I've won here already, which he hasn't. That might have some influence.
"So in any case I'll try to play my best. I'll try to use the experience that I have."
Moya, who was too busy with a five-set battle of his own to watch the Nadal-Gasquet match, has shared some of his experience with Nadal, his Davis Cup teammate. Although Nadal appears calm and collected on the court, Moya says he's still just a youngster.
"He's like a kid," Moya said. "He's 18 years old. You don't feel that on court, but of course, he shows that."
The energy shows on court.
"You have the feeling he's never tired," Gasquet said. "He's always there. He's running all over the place. It's very hard for the opponent."
It certainly had to be disheartening for Gasquet to watch Nadal do his best imitation of Tigger on the way to the chair at 5-2 in the third set.
Once the match ended, Nadal put up a happy fist pump and then with a concerned look on his face for the guy he's insisted all week is a friend, not a rival, headed to the net. Arms around each other they spoke in English.
"I asked him whether he had a physical problem because I saw that he was rather tired at the end of the match," Nadal said. "In spite of having lost three sets to love, he said nothing was wrong with him, that I'd played very well, wished me good luck. I congratulated him for his recent successes. He wished me good luck for the rest of the tournament.
"We do get on very well. There's no problem between us. We're good friends."
Friends who will both have more experience the next time they meet.