James Lawton: Nadal makes himself at home during destruction of courageous Russell
Rafa Nadal was treated with all the deference that goes to a reigning, popular monarch. The Centre Court started off reverential and became increasingly warm and his parents, Sebastian and Anna Maria, seemed to fill the Royal Box with their pride.
The only one apparently unaware that this was supposed to be a day of homage rather than competition was 33-year-old American Michael Russell, an opponent from the margins of big-time tennis who had clearly decided that if he couldn't beat the champion he would go down hard and defiant.
Nor had Russell heard the advice offered to another man facing a dominant sportsman by his gnarled old trainer. "Whatever you do," the young Mike Tyson's opponent was told, "don't land a punch. That will really piss him off." Russell, who moved from the tough town of Detroit to Dallas in his youth and after all his years on the circuit is now ranked at 97, had a similar effect on Nadal when he jumped into a 4-2 first-set lead with brilliant effort and some kamikaze diving at the net. Nadal frowned, gathered up his most resolute mood and then started firing a series of Exocet missiles across the net. For a little while they were placed so absolutely unerringly that Russell looked genuinely contrite and promptly lost the first 6-4.
However, submission does not come naturally to this adopted Texan whose parents are both tennis coaches and perhaps he kept remembering something John McEnroe said about him during his previous attempts to ambush some of tennis's marquee figures.
"No one will ever try harder on a tennis court than Michael Russell," said the former champion in acknowledgement of gritty performances against French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten 10 years ago, Lleyton Hewitt in the Australian Open and and an upset defeat of Nadal's victim in last year's final, Tomas Berdych.
If, however, you piled up all this impressive evidence of resolution, and then solemnly considered the prospects of the diminutive Russell when facing the world's No 1-ranked player, you were still left with a huge imbalance.
This made Nadal's winning score of 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 something of a formality but before it was confirmed we did have some remarkably rousing exchanges. At the end, with Nadal serving on match point, Russell had the temerity to challenge what to most of our naked eyes seemed like a stonewall ace. However, Hawkeye ruled with the battling Russell, who promptly threw a fist in the air. Nadal smiled hugely and proceeded towards the coup-de-grace. When it came, there was an additional bonus for his admiring fans. He took off his shirt.
Later, he said he was grateful for the force of the first-set wake-up call that jolted him out of the slumbers brought on by his retreat to Majorca after a weary defeat at Queen's. Nadal said: "I'm especially happy about this first-round win because of the way I played in the second and third sets. I think he started playing very well, aggressive with some very good returns. My mistake in the beginning was to try to play too fast and I made some mistakes with the backhand and the forehand – and so he had the break.
"But after that I started to change a little bit more the rhythm with the slice, trying to play a little longer points, trying to hit the forehand when I had the chance. I think I did well after that first moment of the first set. My level in general I think was positive, no?" Yes, indeed. In fact the exercise became increasingly impressive and by the end of it there was some disconcerting evidence for local hero Andy Murray that Nadal, the champion of 2008, epically, and last year, has some considerable reasons to consider himself at least half way at home over the next two weeks.
Nadal refused to look beyond his second-round opponent, another relatively obscure American, Ryan Sweeting, ranked No 69 in the world but a resolute winner over Spain's Pablo Andujar after losing the first two sets.
The question concerned the opponent he feared most, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic or Murray. "Many people think it is so close between the four of you, what do you think?" he was asked.
"I think my biggest opponent is Sweeting now. I am focused on my part of the draw. I am focused on myself. To play against the other three can only be in a semi-final or the final. So let's talk about today. Let's talk about tomorrow. Don't let's talk about 10 or 12 days' time because I do not know if I will be here or fishing in Majorca. You never know what's going to happen in a tournament like this."
One reasonable projection is the growth of Nadal's confidence. In the third set yesterday his calculations became increasingly refined. That they were accomplished with so much of his vaunted power made the process deeply impressive. Russell made an engaging show of resistance but no one needed to tell him that he was playing one of sport's less intriguing roles.
Now another scrapper, Sweeting, steps up to the barricade and if he had any illusions about catching the champion at something less than full bore they were buffeted, if not shot through, by the time Nadal left the premises.
"I played against him two times this year, one time in Australian, one time in Indian Wells," said Nadal.
"He had a fantastic comeback today, so probably he arrives to our match with good confidence. I think he is a good player, no? I saw him winning matches around the tournaments. He's playing better and better every time. We will see. I have to play aggressive like every day. That, hopefully, will be enough. If not, I congratulate the opponent."
Sweeting will know, like the rest of tennis, that it is an offer somewhat lacking in guarantees. The Centre Court gave Nadal and his people the warmest of welcomes – and they promptly pulled up their chairs. It is a fiesta, you have to believe, that can run for quite some time. Another 12 days? You wouldn't want to bet against it.
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