Nadal puts on show of beauty to announce final intent

Unfolding under the appreciative gaze of Sir Trevor McDonald, the news from Centre Court yesterday was that Rafael Nadal will take some beating. While rarely scaling the heights he reached at Queen's, the No 2 seed deployed much of his thrilling repertoire to defeat the hard-hitting German qualifier Andreas Beck 6-4, 6-4, 7-6 and, although these are early days, the odds duly shortened on the likelihood of a third successive final between the Majorcan and his grass-court nemesis, Roger Federer. Not since the Wimbledon heyday of Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg 20-odd years ago have two men contested the final in three consecutive years.

If Federer's first-round match on Monday was all about the number six – his 60th consecutive win on grass leaving six men between him and his sixth Wimbledon title – Nadal v Beck revolved around the number two. Both men are 22 years of age, with Nadal ranked second in the world and Beck 122nd. The gap in quality was evident from the start, although Beck, making his Grand Slam debut and playing Nadal for the first time, at least has the satisfaction of knowing that he put the four-times French Open champion through his paces.

What paces they were, though. Nadal moved beautifully around the court, conjuring several winners from places he had no business even reaching. His mentor Manuel Santana, the last Spanish winner of the men's singles here in 1966, has said that Nadal would be entitled to feel confident this year even if Wimbledon were played on ice. That might be worth watching. Britain might even have a chance in the over-45s mixed doubles, by handing rackets to Torvill and Dean.

It was Santana, also a clay-court specialist, who was notoriously disdainful on first arriving at Wimbledon, suggesting that "grass is for cows". A singles title worked wonders in overcoming his dislike for the surface, but Nadal's discomfort on grass is already consigned to history. Asked yesterday if he feels he has improved on the green stuff, he said simply, in his engagingly broken English: "Last two years I played the final in Wimbledon." Indeed. Centre Court might yet challenge Court Philippe Chatrier for his affections.

If he is to triumph, however, and thus become only the third man in the Open era, after Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg, to hold both the Roland Garros and Wimbledon titles in the same year (he is already the first French Open champion since Ilie Nastase in 1973 to win at Queen's, illustrating the size of that achievement), he will have to move up half a gear. The advantages of playing left-handed were lost against a fellow southpaw, and there were times when Beck made him look almost mortal.

On the plus side, he served marvellously, using not just raw power to produce 17 aces – one less than his Wimbledon record against Andre Agassi two years ago – but also positional guile. At 2-3 and 15-30 down in the first set, he practically feathered a serve, which only just exceeded 100mph, but was so fiendishly angled that Beck couldn't have reached it with a bargepole. There followed a seventh-game break, and one more break early in the second set, then, to wrap up the match, a wholly one-sided 7-0 third-set tie-break as if to punish the German for having the temerity to force him that far.

Afterwards, as usual, he rewarded the spectators for their support with his sweatbands, leaving a pair of middle-aged women with the two most precious strips of towelling they will ever own. The Majorcan electrifies a tennis crowd like no other player currently operating, not even Federer. And the wattage is certain to increase as these championships progress.

As for Beck, he did about as well as a qualifier with no Grand Slam experience could realistically expect against Nadal, and can at least derive a tiny sliver of consolation from the performances elsewhere of a couple of his countrymen. Tommy Haas beat Guillermo Canas of Argentina while, more significantly, Benjamin Becker dumped out the No 4 seed, the Russian Nikolay Davydenko, in straight sets. With Boris Becker in the BBC commentary box cracking jokes like Peter Kay and Eddie Izzard combined, it was a good day for Becker and Becker, if not Beck. Now all they need is for 11 more compatriots to do the business in tonight's Euro 2008 semi-final against Turkey.

Nadal, meanwhile, is more interested in tomorrow evening's match, between Spain and Russia. Especially as it was his uncle Miguel Angel who goofed on another famous patch of London turf, missing in a penalty shoot-out at Euro '96 to hand the quarter-final to England. Half a dozen more wins here would certainly obliterate that old stain on the family name.

Comments