Tennis-Nadal in his element as temperature rises

PARIS (Reuters) -After last year's autumnal French Open had players grabbing extra layers and shivering at changeovers, the good news is that warm sunshine has greeted this year's edition.

The bad news for anyone trying to stop Rafa Nadal claiming a record-extending 14th title at Roland Garros, is that the conditions are exactly how the Mallorcan likes them.

Warm air and bouncy claycourts, combined with Nadal's unique spin, have made him all but unplayable here since he won the tournament on his debut in 2005 -- as illustrated by a win-loss record that, after Tuesday's first-round win over Alexei Popyrin, now stands at 101-2 on the Parisian red dirt.

As he pointed out after his 6-3 6-2 7-6(3) win over the young Australian, he did not do too bad last year on the damp courts, taking the title without dropping a set, including a pulverising defeat of Novak Djokovic in the final.

But Nadal, who on his 35th birthday on Thursday will play Frenchman Richard Gasquet, prefers it when it is warm and his forehand rears up like a kicking horse.

"Of course the conditions of last year for me at the end have been good because I won, no?" Nadal told reporters.

"But it is not the ideal situation to play tennis with three or four degrees or sometimes two degrees like some night matches that I played. I feel like I was a little bit scared to get injured. But that's past. This year, we are back to a normal."

"I think for everybody is much more comfortable to play under these conditions than in the other ones."

Perhaps not for his opponents though.

To his credit, Popyrin made Nadal sweat on Tuesday, especially in the third set when the powerful Australian 21-year-old squandered two set points at 5-3 -- one with a double-fault, the other with a fluffed overhead.

Nadal extricated himself from a tight spot, as he usually does, to close out the match in the tiebreak and take his winning run of sets to 26 at Roland Garros.

"He was hitting really hard and I was a little lucky to come back," Nadal said.

Popyrin was playing Nadal for the second time during the claycourt swing, having also lost to him in Madrid.

His description of facing the Spaniard, chasing a record 21st Grand Slam title, was wonderfully understated.

"The guy is solid. What can I say," he told reporters, before adding: "I think it's his court. It will always be his court. I think it's his favourite court to play on."

On the two set points that went begging, Popyrin did not beat about the bush.

"I think I'm experienced enough to not choke at 5-3, 40-30. I'm disappointed with that.

"I think the moment got to my head a little bit. Taking a set off Nadal, especially in French Open, is not the easiest thing to do."

(Reporting by Martyn HermanEditing by Toby Davis)