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Shifting ground on red clay: After another French Open win, Nadal looks toward tennis' future

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PARIS - Shortly after winning for the 61st time in his 62nd match on the red clay at Roland Garros, Rafael Nadal took a moment to look at the future of tennis.

And the top-seeded Spaniard doesn't see himself in the picture. Or Roger Federer. Or Novak Djokovic. Or Andy Murray.

True, Nadal advanced to the third round of the French Open on Thursday, beating a 20-year-old Austrian in straight sets. But it's that same 20-year-old Austrian, Dominic Thiem, who is one of the men who could start winning the major titles that have been so elusive to almost everyone outside that famous quartet.

Together, they have won 34 of the last 36 Grand Slam titles.

But, to drive home his point, Nadal notes he's almost 28 while Djokovic and Murray are 27 and Federer is "I don't know, 32."

"(We're) not going to be here for 10 more years," he said.

The eight-time French Open champion followed that last statement with a chuckle, probably because he quickly realized how ridiculous that kind of prognostication sounds after his 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 win over Thiem.

It was, however, quite a contest on Court Philippe Chatrier, the main stadium at Roland Garros and Nadal's favourite place to play.

Thiem broke Nadal's serve twice, once in the first set and once in the third. The first time, Nadal was serving for the set at 5-1 and leading 40-30, but Thiem hit three straight thundering shots into the same corner, the first a backhand the next two forehands, to make it 5-2.

"He has very powerful shots," said Nadal, who can become the first man in history to win five straight French Open titles with another victory this year. "Very powerful forehand and good backhand, too."

Good, for sure, but not yet good enough to take down Nadal.

"It's really important to play against these guys a lot, against these top guys because it's more important than every practice," said Thiem, playing in only his second Grand Slam tournament. "I hope I can take a lot with me from this match."

The three other old-timers have also reached the third round, with Murray beating Marinko Matosevic 6-3, 6-1, 6-3. Despite the lopsided score, Murray still had to work to keep himself sharp, at times chastising himself out loud for all to hear.

"From a player's perspective ... the beginning of sets are very important to try and get ahead whilst the opponent's head is down a little bit," Murray said. "I was just trying to make sure that my intensity was there every moment, especially at the beginning of the sets. I managed to get ahead early in all of them, and that helped."

Murray has never won the French Open, nor has anyone else in the men's draw besides Nadal and Federer. But the Wimbledon champion reached the semifinals at Roland Garros in 2011 and the quarterfinals in 2012. He missed last year's tournament because of a back injury.

The women's tournament started with six former champions in the main draw, and three remain — Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Ana Ivanovic.

Kuznetsova and Ivanovic won second-round matches Thursday. Sharapova advanced on Wednesday and will play again Friday.

But the one player just about everyone expects to see holding the trophy yet again at Roland Garros is Nadal, the only man with eight major titles from the same Grand Slam tournament.

Nadal's only loss at Roland Garros came in the fourth round in 2009, a result that split his eight titles into two neat groups of four. And his start so far this year is already a tad better than the one last year, when he needed four sets in the first round and four in the second to advance.

"No one year is the same, no, no, no," Nadal said. "No, no, no, doesn't mean nothing, doesn't mean nothing that last year I (started with) a very hard week, but I played well when I had to play well."

In the third round this year, Nadal will face Leonardo Mayer, a 27-year-old Argentine who has lost in his two other attempts to reach the fourth round at Roland Garros.

Should be another easy victory for Nadal, but who knows how long those will last.

"A generation is walking away and others will replace us," Nadal said. "It will not come overnight, but it will come."

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