Since Lleyton Hewitt won in 2002 only two names have appeared on the roll call of men's champions here at the All England Club. Roger Federer, six times a winner, and Rafael Nadal, who has taken the title on his last two visits, are clearly in the mood to extend that record. With both men coming through their first three rounds without dropping a set, what price a fourth Roger versus Rafa Centre Court final next Sunday?
Yesterday's third-round matcheshad the potential to provide the two greatest players of the modern era with significant challenges, but they never materialised. Federer beat David Nalbandian, an opponent who has given him plenty oftrouble in the past, 6-4 6-2 6-4, while Nadal, having laboured through the first set against the big-serving Gilles Müller on Friday night, completed a 7-6 7-6 6-0 victory over the 28-year-old world No 92 from Luxembourg.
Nalbandian, a contemporary of Federer's, was for many years one of the only players on the circuit who had won more matches against the Swiss than he had lost. The 29-year-old Argentine won their first five meetings as professionals and their head-to-head record stood at eight wins apiece as recently as three years ago.
Injuries however, have taken their toll on Nalbandian, who lost to Hewitt in the final here nine years ago. He had hip surgery last May, missed this year's Australian Open after straining abdominal muscles, had a hernia operation in the spring and missed the French Open after going down with a fever. Rumours that he is distantly related to the footballer Darren "Sicknote" Anderton are unsubstantiated.
If fitness has been a problem – his body shape over the years has suggested that he is not the most assiduous of trainers – there can be no doubting Nalbandian's ability. The former world No 3, who is currently No 23 in the rankings and has not reached the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament for four years, has one of the game's best double-handed backhands, has no weaknesses in his shot-making and is a fine strategist.
Nalbandian clearly saw attack as his only chance. There were plentyof times when his ball-striking had Federer in trouble, but his big problem was holding serve. Federer,who served beautifully, made the first of his five breaks as early as the third game and soon had the first two sets in the bag.
Having taken a medical time-out for treatment to his right thigh at the start of the third set, Nalbandian held on until the ninth game, whereupon the final break of serve summed up his deficiencies. From 40-30 up the Argentine failed to get in position for what should have been a routine volley, hit a double-fault when going for too much power on his second serve and struck a forehand wide after Federer cleverly exposed his opponent's lack of mobility with a short, sliced backhand.
Even when Federer served out for the match, however, there were still glimpses of Nalbandian's talent. The Swiss missed an easy overhead on his first match point, but on the second Nalbandian forced him into a mistake with the quality of his ground strokes and on the third he hit an exquisite drop shot winner, which brought a wry smile to his opponent's face. Not that Federer was to be denied, an ace and a service winner on the next two points giving him victory after an hour and 46 minutes.
"I thought he was playing a bit like myself, first-strike tennis," Federer said afterwards. "The rallies weren't that long, but when they were being played I think the ball was being hit very hard and clean by him. I've very happy with today. I think I played a great match."
The former world No 1, who now faces Russia's Mikhail Youzhny, has not won a Grand Slam title for 17 months but insisted that he was as hungry for success as ever. "I always have been," he said. "The day after my victory, the day after my final losses, I've been hungry. It doesn't come in phases. I'm always hungry."
When Nadal's match against Müller was called off because of rain at the end of the first set on Friday, the Spaniard had just left the court to take a medical time-out after suffering a problem with his right leg.
The world No 1 showed little sign of discomfort in completing his victory on yesterday's resumption but admitted: "The leg felt a little bit more tired than usual. I called the trainer for that. Today I was still feeling it a little bit, but it's not limiting my game. I can play with that without problems."
Nadal had warned last week that facing a big server early in the competition was often the greatest danger here.
He probably had Milos Raonic in mind, but the cannonball-serving Canadian retired injured when playing his second-round match against Müller, another server with explosive power in his racket. The Luxembourgeois put a healthy 73 per cent of his first serves in court, won 81 per cent of points played on his first serve and hit 17 aces.
Müller hit 36 winners to Nadal's 30, but the more telling statistic was the unforced error count: 22 by Müller and only three by his opponent. As soon as a rally developed, Nadal was always the favourite to win it, while the Spaniard rarely got into trouble on his own serve, saving the only two break points that Müller created.
"I was a little bit lucky in the first set yesterday because I think I only won three points on the return beforethe tie-break and I had two set points against me," Nadal said afterwards. "The second set today was very similar.
"I think I played solid mentally. In the tie-break I got my first serve in every time and when I had the chance to return, I won the point. That's the reason I am in the third round. In the third set, being two sets up, I was able to play with less pressure. I started to return unbelievably well and to play at a very high level."
The challenges, nevertheless, will not get any easier. In tomorrow's fourth round Nadal will face Juan Martin del Potro, the 2009 US Open champion, who has climbed back to No 21 in the world rankings after missing the best part of a year with a wrist injury.
"His level is much better than what the ranking says today," Nadal said. "When he's healthy, he must be in the top five of the rankings, so he will be a very tough opponent for me."
Caught in the net
Spectators entering the All England Club grounds, many of whom had queued all night, were held up for 45 minutes yesterday morning after police discovered a group in the queue who they suspected of planning to hold a demonstration inside.
Police said there 14 people involved, who were wearing yellow T-shirts and had equipment nearby, including paint. According to one source, those involved had been planning to demonstrate against Government policy. They were said to have left quietly and no arrests were made.
The gates were due to open at 10.30am but no admittance was allowed until 11.15am as a police helicopter flew overhead to monitor the grounds. An official Wimbledon statement said: "Acting on information received that there might be a potential demonstration, we have been taking some actions to prevent it."
Attendances for the tournament have been slightly up on last year at an average of 42,000 per day.Reuse content