It's not often that Rafael Nadal arrives on Centre Court after the Lord Mayor's Show, but under the retractable roof at around 4.30pm yesterday there was a palpable sense that the previous match between Venus Williams and Kimiko Date-Krumm had been the day's big parade. Indeed, the first three games of Nadal's second-round match against the American Ryan Sweeting passed before anybody so much as took their seat in the Royal Box. Not even Bruce Forsyth, a rapt spectator during Venus's hard-fought win, was there to run an eye over Nadal's fancy footwork, which eventually helped the defending champion to register a 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 victory.
As if responding to this subdued mood, however, the top seed and world No 1 took a little time to find his line and length, as the England cricketers here on Tuesday might have put it. The characteristic frown looked just a little more deeply etched than usual, the ritual picking at his underpants just slightly more agitated. Occasionally, he asked the ball girls for four balls to select from before serving, rather than the usual three.
But even a faintly out-of-sorts Nadal is still a mighty proposition for the world's 69th best player, and Sweeting, already defeated twice by Nadal this year, simply could not cope with the Majorcan's colossal power. In trying to fight fire with fire, he repeatedly thumped the ball beyond the baseline. He's not the first, and won't be the last even at this tournament, to be lulled into a perfectly reasonable sense of insecurity against the man whose undefeated run on the All-England Club's lawns now extends to 16 matches. Admittedly injury kept him away in 2009, but it is nonetheless a hard and formidable fact that the last time Nadal walked off court a loser here was after the 2007 final against Roger Federer. This time, they are again seeded to meet in the final, and what a match that could be. Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic will have other ideas, but whatever transpires, it might even be enough to bury the memories of Williams v Date-Krumm.
As for the denizens of the Royal Box, perhaps remembering that there was a pretty decent player on court, and deciding that three scones were enough, they started trickling back in for the fourth game, led by none other than the Duchess of Cornwall. By the time Nadal wrapped up the first set, they were all back, including Brucie, who could have chosen several from his extensive collection of catchphrases, but "good game, good game" seemed the most appropriate as Nadal inexorably asserted his command, racing to a 4-0 second-set lead before Sweeting pegged him back.
The 23-year-old, who became a US citizen five years ago after relocating from the Bahamas, is no mug on a tennis court. He is a former US Open junior champion, won his first ATP tour event this year, and has recently broken into the top 100. He's a fighter, not unlike his compatriot Michael Russell, Nadal's victim in round one. In his own first-round match, against Pablo Andujar on Monday, Sweeting won a thunderous five-setter, the first time in his career he had won in five sets and his first victory at Wimbledon. There must have been times yesterday, however, when playing the world No 1 on Centre Court felt more like a punishment than a reward for those efforts. By the end of the second set Nadal had found whatever it was that had been lacking in the opening exchanges, and those whipcracking forehands were finding the corners like guided missiles.He was also serving beautifully, and winning 93 per cent of his first-serve points.
Undaunted, or rather not as daunted as he might have been, Sweeting won the first game of the third set with some missiles of his own. Moreover, after being broken by the Majorcan to go 1-2 down he had the audacity to break straight back. The Centre Court crowd, by now fully engaged, doubtless wondered what effect a service break would have on Nadal. Would it be like calling Kevin Kline's character "stupid" in A Fish Called Wanda, lifting him to new levels of ferocity? In fact, Sweeting managed to sustain the pressure, but after just over two hours Nadal ended the younger man's Grand Slam dreams for the second time this year, having also ejected him from the Australian Open. It was no way to thank him for a decent workout as he bids to win an 11th Grand Slam title by retaining a Wimbledon crown for the first time in his stellar career.
Standing in Nadal's way next is the big-serving man from Luxembourg, Gilles Muller, who went through after the Canadian Milos Raonic withdrew, injured, after just five games of the first set.