Wimbledon 2014: Rafael Nadal stumbles but clicks into good form as he defeats Mikhail Kukushkin to advance into last 16

The world No 1 has made a habit of losing the first set this week but once he had quelled the Kazakh’s opening flourish he coasted through
  • @PaulN54

Rafael Nadal likes order in his life. The 28-year-old Spaniard always enters the court behind his opponent, always places his water bottles in the same position next to his chair and before every serve goes through the same routines. Even his uncle and coach, Toni Nadal, sits in the same position, at the end of a row, in his player box.

The world No 1 is now bringing similar order to his matches. For the third round in a row, Nadal lost the first set, turned his fortunes around in the second and eventually ran out a comfortable winner. The latest player to find himself dancing to the Spaniard’s tune was Mikhail Kukushkin, who was beaten 6-7 6-1 6-1 6-1 as Nadal booked his place in the last 16 for the first time since reaching his fifth final here three years ago.

Nadal will next play the Australian teenager Nick Kyrgios, who beat Jiri Vesely in four sets after spending much of the day watching the rain fall on a frustrating afternoon for everyone bar those fortunate enough to play or watch under Centre Court’s retractable roof. After the rain that had been forecast for Friday failed to materialise, this was payback time.

It may have been umbrella and poncho weather outside, but inside T-shirts were on show. A group of Nadal’s supporters were decked out in Spanish yellow, each with one letter from Nadal’s name printed on their shirts, but it seemed that one of their party had failed to turn up or had suffered a clothing malfunction. Vamos, Rafa Nadl! 

The missing person in Kukushkin’s party was his wife and coach, Anastasia Kukushkina, who had visa problems. But for the first set the 26-year-old from Kazakhstan did not appear to lack any inspiration. The world No 63, who had never won a match here before last week, double-faulted on the second point but more than held his own in the first set, in which there were no break points for either man.

While Kukushkin hit his ground strokes with power and conviction, Nadal rarely got out of third gear in the first set, even if he gave little away in the form of unforced errors. The tie-break turned when Kukushkin hit a smart forehand to go 4-2 up. Nadal saved a first set point with an ace but on the second he hit a backhand long.

Nadal admitted afterwards that he had said to himself at that moment that “maybe the roof here in Wimbledon is not good for me”. The Spaniard’s only previous experience of the retractable cover had been on exactly the same date two years ago, when Lukas Rosol beat him in the second round.

In the second set, however, Nadal started to get the measure of Kukushkin’s second serve and the momentum shifted decisively. When Kukushkin served at 1-2, Nadal forced the first break point of the afternoon. On his second the Spaniard cracked a big forehand return to go 3-1 up.

Two games later Nadal broke serve again with a demonstration of outstanding athleticism. The Spaniard was driven out wide on his backhand flank but from outside the tramlines hit a stunning inside-out forehand winner to the opposite corner.

By the time Nadal led 2-0 in the third set he had won eight games  in a row. Kukushkin reduced the  arrears to 2-1, only for Nadal to win another seven games in succession to lead 3-0 in the fourth set.

With the end close, Kukushkin raised his fist in ironic triumph when he hit a big forehand winner down the line as Nadal served at 5-1. Three points later Nadal converted his first match point by driving a forehand winner into a corner.

Nadal could not explain why he is suffering in the first set of his matches. “Normally I am a good first-set player,” he said. “I think my opponent played great in the first set today and I think I was playing fine. He played fantastic. The only thing that I did not do well in the first set was some returns with the second serve.’

Roger Federer, who is seeded to meet Nadal in the semi-finals, also booked his place in the fourth round. The seven-time Wimbledon champion completed his third successive straight-sets victory when he beat Santiago Giraldo 6-3 6-1 6-3.

Giraldo dropped serve in the second game and Federer went on to serve out for the set, finishing the job with a smart volley. Giraldo had competed well for most of the first set, but the world No 35 played a woeful game at the start of the second and was broken to love.

The Colombian’s last chance came and went when he failed to convert break points when Federer served at 3-3. Giraldo did not win another game. Two successive errors gave Federer his fifth break of the match and he served out to love to complete his victory.