Another brilliant, battering display of the nearest that tennis comes to boxing carried Rafael Nadal through to the fourth round of Wimbledon in the gloaming last night. When his third-round match with Germany's Nicolas Kiefer was called on to court at a time when many spectators were heading for the exits there were worries that it would not finish before dark.
Trust Rafa to scupper such thoughts. As ever, he started slowly, in that manner which was described by one Spanish tennis writer as "like a diesel motor kicking into life", but the motor was turning over to a superb tune after the opening set tie-break had been negotiated and he breasted the line an impressive and cheerful winner, 7-6 6-3 6-3 in two hours 22 minutes.
So the boy wonder from Mallorca is heading confidently towards his third successive Wimbledon final, with perhaps Andy Murray lying in hopeful ambush in the quarter-finals if he can get past the French No 1, Richard Gasquet. The Nadal camp expect no less than a shoot-out with Roger Federer next Sunday, and it is beginning to look as if that is what will happen.
There had been hopes in anti-Nadal quarters that Kiefer might present more of a barricade to the Spaniard's hopes, though the statistics were not encouraging. Nadal had won both their previous matches, the second as recently as April in the quarter-finals of the Davis Cup, Germany v Spain. In neither match had Kiefer managed to grab a set.
Nadal is beginning to amass some Federer-like statistics. This was the 10th Grand Slam in a row that he has reached the last 16. He last lost at the third-round stage back in 2005 at the US Open. So maybe the Federer-Nadal final will be staged at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon for the third successive year.
A more daunting fact for Federer is that if he fails to get to the final here and loses his title to Rafa, the world No 1 ranking will finally shift away from the Swiss. But that sort of stuff can wait for later in the week.
Tribute must be paid to the 30-year-old Kiefer for his doggedness in fighting his way back into the world's top 35 after a dispiriting run of problems with a wrist injury which needed two operations in 2006. More wrist trouble shortened his season in 2007 to just five months, causing him to fall out of the rankings. So, although he is too determined a competitor to accept the third round at Wimbledon as a decent effort, he will recognise that to run into the Nadal harvesting machine constitutes an unlucky draw.
A barrage of aces – four in his first two service games – were enough for Kiefer to subdue any aggressive thoughts from Nadal in an evenly balanced first set. It was 6.50pm before they got under way, when the only corner of Centre Court still catching the sun was quickly in the shade.
Nadal's one break point, in the seventh game, was repulsed by Kiefer, who ran doggedly in pursuit of the Spaniard's demanding groundstrokes, swung from side to side. The German had a break point of his own in the next game but could not take advantage so the progress to a tie-break had the look of the inevitable.
It was here that Kiefer, previously so determined and collected, was drawn into error, hooking a forehand wide to offer Nadal the first mini-break and then sliding to set point down with a careless forehand into the net, accompanied by a yell of despair. It was all Nadal needed to close out the set in 67 minutes.
Losing a tie-break through sloppiness can be a dispiriting business and Kiefer's carefully assembled game plan unravelled early in the second set, with Nadal's bombardment forcing the early break which confirmed his place in the driver's seat.
The foot was never thereafter removed from the floor, or from Kiefer's throat. There is a metronomic quality about the Nadal bombardment's relentlessness, which intensified as the grass became damper and the second seed suffered his first fall in the seventh game. It was then 8.25pm as Nadal, on his backside, contrived to get his shot over the net though not, for once, for a winner.
Either he did not want this match carried over to tomorrow, with its potential for disrupting a hitherto smooth schedule, or he was anxious to get away to his favourite Spanish restaurant on the Old Brompton Road and tuck into his favourite dish, squid.
Another break of serve, this time to love as a result of another tame forehand into the net by Kiefer, put Nadal two sets ahead with a further 33 minutes gone. By now the German's total of unforced errors had soared to 18 and Nadal's first-serve percentage for the second set was a mightily impressive 84. No wonder, then, that Kiefer decided it was time for a toilet break, and perhaps a rethink.
He might as well have tried to turn round on the Cresta Run. It was wings over Wimbledon for the 22-year-old Nadal now, Kiefer in disarray and the second seed running away with it. The third set was a procession of Nadal winners and Kiefer errors and when he finally won a game late in the third set the German raised an arm in triumph.
To the delight of the crowd, Kiefer then broke the Nadal serve for the first time in the match, held serve and was on the way to a score that was far from a disgrace. Once more required to serve out for the match, Nadal obliged just as the lights started to come on in the bars and restaurants around Centre Court. Let's hope the German had found a Bierkeller where he could drown his sorrows.
Tomorrow Nadal will be back to take on Mikhail Youzhny, the Russian staying out even longer to progress in five sets. He finished off Radek Stepanek after the Czech had slipped, hurt his wrist and had treatment at 5-3 down and deuce in the final set.