Normal service was resumed on a sun-baked Centre Court yesterday, as Rafael Nadal followed Roger Federer into the second round without anything like as much trouble as the top seed experienced in beating Alejandro Falla in five sets on Monday.
After the battle of the Fs, this was a mere skirmish of the Ns, with Nadal disposing of the wild card Kei Nishikori of Japan in straight sets, 6-2, 6-4, 6-4.
Ominously for the rest of the field – Federer included – the Majorcan looked in terrific form on his return to the All England Club after missing last year's championships with a knee injury, not so much hitting the ball as brutalising it.
Nadal does not consider himself defending champion, yet this was his first time on Centre Court since defeating Federer in that extraordinary 2008 final, and on the evidence of this impressive display it will take some player to end his winning habit. That single Nike swoosh on his white bandanna seemed to represent a tick in every box. Serve, forehand, backhand, volley ... all present and very much correct.
Here Nadal needed to be on top of his formidable game, however. His opponent, aged 20, was voted ATP Newcomer of the Year in 2008 and is stabled at the Bollettieri Academy in Florida, where he is considered to be one of that celebrated establishment's brightest young hopes. In the view of one not-unbiased observer yesterday, he might even be destined for the world's top 20.
It was this correspondent's privilege to be seated in the press box next to Nick Bollettieri himself, who glowed like a proud grandfather as – in the second set especially – Nishikori showed off his full repertoire, which includes a balletic leaping forehand. With Nadal covering the court with his usual panther-like agility, there were times when it could have been another set of Ns out there, Nureyev and Nijinsky
Moreover, if Nadal needed a reminder that he could not afford any lapses of concentration against an opponent who took a set off him in their only previous meeting – a match two years ago in the last 16 at Queen's – it came as early the opening game.
Nishikori raced into a 40-0 lead but then double-faulted, and Nadal pounced like a cat on a hesitant mouse. A break up, he never looked like relinquishing command of the first set.
The second set was a closer affair. The only way to overcome Nadal – in the absence of chloroform – is to return his groundstrokes early and keep him guessing with an array of shots. This Nishikori tried admirably to do, winning the first game with a sublime drop shot that kissed the net-cord on the way over. Like the penalty that goes in off the post, there's no better way of executing a drop shot.
"Kid's good," muttered Bollettieri, nudging in the ribs anyone within nudging distance. He's right, the kid is good. But to beat Nadal in this form you need to be better than good. And you also need luck.
At 4-3 to Nishikori and deuce, a booming Nadal serve down the middle was called out. Break point for a 5-3 lead fleetingly beckoned, until the No 2 seed issued a successful challenge. That was all Nishikori needed. With Nadal on the other side of the net, you don't need Hawk-Eye against you as well.
At 2-3 in the third set Nishikori did finally break the Nadal serve, but the 2008 champion treated this effrontery by breaking straight back. The match followed soon afterwards, but Nishikori at least had the consolation of knowing that he had contributed, at times, to some spectacular tennis.
Nor will defeat diminish his stature in his homeland, where he is already a major star. Japan has never produced a male top-20 player, and if an elbow injury hadn't wiped out most of his 2009 season, he might already be knocking on the door.
As for Nadal, he was asked afterwards for a response to John McEnroe's prediction that he can go on to win "12 or 13 Grand Slams". Ever humble, he said that the seven he already has are more than he ever dreamt of, but even as he spoke, however, the odds were shortening on him soon making it eight.Reuse content