Brian Viner at Wimbledon: Nadal thriller sets up Agassi dream match

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Even the statue of Fred Perry is salivating at the prospect of a third-round tie tomorrow between the charismatic second seed Rafael Nadal, who yesterday beat the American qualifier Robert Kendrick in five enthralling sets, and the man almost twice his age, Andre Agassi, who delighted the Court One crowd by beating Italy's Andreas Sappi more straightforwardly, 6-4, 7-6, 6-4.

Did somebody say there is also a football match scheduled to take place tomorrow afternoon? However, it was so nearly Kendrick's day, the man ranked 237th in the world coming within two points of disposing of the French Open champion. He certainly played as he had never played before, serving more than two dozen aces but also matching the buccaneering Spaniard with his range of shots.

Moreover, having saved two set points at 5-6 down in the third set, Kendrick then forced a tie-break by diving, Boris Becker-like, to make a winning volley. It was rousing stuff. Nor, even though he lost the subsequent tie-break, did he wilt as many thought he might. Nadal won the next two sets narrowly, completing his hard-earned victory in three hours, 42 minutes, 6-7, 3-6, 7-6, 7-5, 6-4.

As a fascinating match wore on, the allegiance of the Centre Court crowd seemed to switch to 26-year-old Kendrick, whose range of shots was amazing in a man who has tried five times to qualify for Wimbledon, succeeding only twice. He even revived the lost art of serve-volleying, and won friends not only with his skilful and spirited performance but also with his calmness even as the possibility of a famous victory receded.

But it was the Spaniard who prevailed, and if he beats Agassi tomorrow, it will be the furthest he has travelled here. He lost in the third round in 2003, his Grand Slam debut, then missed the 2004 championships with an ankle injury, and last year was knocked out in round two. In that time he has won twice at Roland Garros, indeed he has never lost a match there. His record on clay - an astounding 60-match winning streak - is even better than Roger Federer's on grass. Yet Federer is brilliant on clay, too, just not quite as brilliant as Nadal. Whereas the man from Majorca, perhaps befitting his piratical look, frequently finds himself all at sea on the green stuff.

However, he is getting better with every match, and ominously for the 1992 champion, will draw considerable confidence from yesterday's epic.

Besides, he is by no means the first great clay-court player to struggle with the quicker surface here. It is like asking a marvellous watercolourist to paint in oils. At any rate, not since Bjorn Borg in 1980 has a man won the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year, and with the exception of Agassi himself, who triumphed in Paris in 1999, nobody since Borg has boasted both Grand Slams on their CV. The three-times French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten has never got beyond the quarter-final stage at Wimbledon. Nadal is in decent company.

Agassi, meanwhile, is in even better company, as one of only five men with a "career" Grand Slam. Don Budge, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver and Fred Perry are the others, and the Court One crowd accorded the 36-year-old Las Vegan the respect he so plainly deserves, giving him a standing ovation onto the court. They were perhaps mindful of his recently announced decision to retire from competitive tennis after the US Open. This might have been Agassi's Wimbledon valedictory.

That it was not owed much to the familiar rhythm with which he patrolled the baseline, and his penetrating service returns. You are more likely to see an agoraphobic going willingly to the shops than Agassi going willingly to the net, but his groundstrokes looked in great shape, and more significantly, so did he. Asked afterwards how the sport had changed since his career began way back in the Paleolithic era of McEnroe and Connors, he cited improved fitness levels as the main difference.

"I mean, Connors was only 5ft 9in," he said. "Now you've got guys routinely that are 6ft 3in and above. It's rare that you play somebody under that, to be honest. The physicality of the game has changed dramatically. Compare Nadal at just turned 20 to me when I just turned 20. It's a sport that has started to figure out that the stronger and more physical you are, the more capable you are as an athlete."

Yet Nadal knows that his capability will be thoroughly tested tomorrow, by a man who made his debut here in June 1987, a few weeks after the Majorcan's first birthday.

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