Nadal survives a test of strength
Friday 27 June 2008
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.
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