Nadal survives a test of strength

By Brian Viner at Wimbledon

Rafael Nadal did not have quite as much time as he would have liked yesterday to pack his rackets, get back to his rented house, cook his favourite pasta dish and settle down in front of the football to watch his friend Iker Casillas, the Spanish goalkeeper, trying to keep out the Russian attack. The 19-year-old Latvian Ernests Gulbis made the No 2 seed work strenuously in a match which lasted a tad under three hours and eventually finished, in the Majorcan's favour, 5-7, 6-2, 7-6, 6-3.

It wasn't as though Nadal had anticipated an easy ride. As soon as he had dealt with his first-round opponent Andreas Beck, he expressed concern about Gulbis, describing him as "one of the worst opponents who I can play in the second round. He plays very aggressive with amazing forehands." So it proved. "Unbelievably powerful, no?" Nadal said afterwards of the Gulbis forehand.

His young opponent is still the only Latvian man ever to contest a Grand Slam, and sooner or later might well become the only Latvian of any gender to win a Grand Slam. He has the all-round game for it, that powerful forehand backed up by a huge serve, which yesterday averaged 126mph, and the deftest of drop shots. He is versatile, too. He reached the quarter-final of the French Open last month, losing 5-7, 6-7, 5-7 to Novak Djokovic, having beaten the world No 8 James Blake on the way, and followed that by winning two matches on the Queen's Club grass, until Andy Murray ended his run. Which was revenge for Britain, because at Roland Garros last year Gulbis obliterated Tim Henman – remember him? – in straight sets. This is a young man worth watching.

He started on Court One like the Riga to somewhere-else-in-Latvia express, winning his first three service games to love. Indeed, Nadal managed only four points against serve in the set, and successfully returned only 33 per cent of his opponent's thunderous first serves, miserable statistics for a man of his stature. It was no wonder that he seemed out of sorts, muttering darkly to himself, and tugging at his underwear between points with just a little more force than usual. Nor was his mood improved by a dodgy call at 5-5 and 30-30, the umpire ruling that he hadn't quite reached a Gulbis drop shot, when television replays showed that he had. "Por favor," he cried. Not everyone would have been so polite, although he did then add that if he lost the first set it would be the umpire's fault. Afterwards, he had the grace to admit that the fault had been entirely his own. "I lost the set because I played terrible in the next game," he said.

Yet Nadal does not wilt under pressure; it is hard to think of anyone who ever wilted less. He bounced back to win the second set with ease, after which the stage seemed set for a procession, but Gulbis had other ideas and, but for some untimely unforced errors, and an understandable tendency to overuse his mostly effective drop shot, might have caused another first-week sensation, following Djokovic's departure on Wednesday, and Maria Sharapova's in the following match.

The teenager is not like other players from the former Eastern Bloc, for whom tennis offered an exit strategy from a life of grime. His father is a wealthy investment banker, and Gulbis has been known to turn up to matches in a private plane. Unlike some tennis players from similarly comfortable backgrounds, however, he does not behave like a spoilt rich kid. His smile lit up Court One on several occasions, and the crowd responded, willing him at least to push Nadal all the way.

He nearly did and, although it is the No 2 seed who marches on, Gulbis, ranked 48 in the world, at least forced the Majorcan to consider tweaking aspects of his game. "I did terrible today when arriving to the drop shots," he said. "So for the next day I'm going to do better, change the tactics a little bit." Not many teenagers could have tested those tactics like Gulbis did. Yet Nadal, it is sometimes easy to forget, is himself only 22.

News
peoplePaper attempts to defend itself
Voices
voicesWe desperately need men to be feminists too
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits