(MICHEL SPRINGLER ~ Associated Press)
The third tour-level match of your professional tennis career is against Rafael Nadal in a 9,950-seat stadium at the French Open.
You've watched Nadal from afar. You know all about his recently snapped 81-match winning streak on clay. The two consecutive titles at Roland Garros, too. So you have an idea of what to expect, right? Not one bit, according to Flavio Cipolla, the qualifier from Italy who lived the above scenario Thursday.
"I had seen him on TV," the 227th-ranked Cipolla said. "But playing him really makes an impression."
Nadal built his current, more modest, run on clay to two matches, reaching the French Open's third round by beating the wide-eyed Cipolla 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 on a day that the often surprise-filled Grand Slam tournament played to form.
Like Nadal, major champions Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Amelie Mauresmo, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Lleyton Hewitt and Carlos Moya all won, as did up-and-comers such as No. 6 Novak Djokovic and No. 16 Marcos Baghdatis.
That's not to say there weren't some tough moments. Williams, for example, fell behind 3-0 in the second set before beating Milagros Sequera of Venezuela 6-0, 7-6 (3) in a match pushed back a day because of darkness.
"It was weird," said Williams, who counts the 2002 French Open among her eight Grand Slam titles. "I didn't feel like I played my best tennis throughout the whole match. I was kind of struggling out there to get the rhythm -- maybe because I had too many days off."
Sharapova didn't get much time to rest her problematic shoulder, playing on a second consecutive day, but her only complaint after beating Jill Craybas of the United States 6-2, 6-1 was that she sometimes feels like "a cow on ice" while on clay.
Already up 2-1, Craybas held three break points at love-40. Sharapova, though, won the next 11 points en route to taking 10 games in a row. At 5-0 in the second set, Craybas finally won another game -- a development that drew wild cheers from the crowd, which she acknowledged by raising her arms and smiling meekly.
"I don't think she was hitting her serve 100 percent," Craybas said. "Pretty much doing second serves all the time."
Mauresmo, who acknowledges she feels more pressure playing at home, needed three sets to get past another Frenchwoman, Nathalie Dechy, then credited a nearly two-hour rain delay with allowing her to compose herself. Kuznetsova fell behind 5-0 against Meghann Shaughnessy of the United States, then turned things around to win 7-6 (4), 6-3.
Hewitt dug the biggest hole of all, dropping the first two sets against 2004 French Open champion Gaston Gaudio. But Hewitt's 20 aces and Gaudio's 13 double faults helped change the match's complexion, and the 14th-seeded Australian put together a 4-6, 3-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-2 victory.
"Throughout that whole third set, I was just trying to get that third set under my belt. I wasn't even thinking about the fourth or the fifth," Hewitt said. "It was the same in the fourth set -- just thinking about that set."
He made 25 unforced errors in the first two sets, then only 19 the rest of the way in his fourth career comeback from a 2-0 deficit.
The French Open is the only major at which Hewitt's never reached a final. Never been beyond the quarterfinals, actually. If he's even going to get that far this time, he'll probably need to beat Nadal in the fourth round.
And, as Gaudio put it, "Some people think that Hewitt could compete with Nadal."
Very few people have been able to truly compete with -- much less beat -- Nadal on red clay, where his speed, stamina and strong groundstrokes dominate. He went more than two years without losing on the surface until Roger Federer won their Hamburg Masters final in May.
That result "gave Federer and everybody else something to believe," said Djokovic, a quarterfinalist in Paris last year who beat the 312th-ranked Laurent Recouderc of France 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-1. "You believe more that we can beat this guy on this surface."
The only man ranked lower than Recouderc left in the draw was Cipolla, and he didn't necessarily sound afterward as if he believed he had much of a shot against Nadal, especially once they began playing.
"He hits a very heavy ball. He moves quickly. He got to every ball," Cipolla said. "He even volleys well."
Cipolla is accustomed to playing in front of crowds in the hundreds at minor league events, and the only victory on his official tour record came Wednesday at Roland Garros when his opponent quit with an injury. So who could blame the 23-year-old for looking around and smiling as he walked onto Court Suzanne Lenglen?
"It was bellissimo," Cipolla said. "To play against him. And the setting -- the court, the people. I got emotional."
"At the beginning, he was a bit nervous. He would make mistakes," the No. 2-seeded Spaniard said.
Nadal, as usual, was all business. He hit one overhead so hard, the ball bounced into the stands about 12 feet above the court and smacked a spectator in the head (the man was ushered away, then returned to his seat a few games later).
While Cipolla heads home to Italy for a local tournament, Nadal will try to keep adding to his new streak on clay.
"I'm playing better and better every day," Nadal said, "and I'll fight every day a bit more."