Wimbledon 2015: Rafa Nadal is made to sweat in efforts to turn back time

Any win was a mercy, because the early rounds have not been kind to the Spaniard ever since he took the second of his titles here five years ago

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The Independent Online

Rafael Nadal didn’t stint on the euphoria. It poured out of him, like the sweat which dripped from his brow, in a way that did not befit a first-round win from a man who has cast a vast shadow across the game.

Punching the air and casting wristbands to the farthest corner of Court No 1: that’s what victory looks like when winning is no longer a summer breeze and when you have stopped swaggering around these courts with menace.

Some insouciance was restored by the time Nadal arrived to talk about his three-set win over Thomaz Bellucci – a deceptively comfortable margin – but he first scrutinised the sheet of match statistics in front of him and there seemed to be something significant in that.

“If they give me the statistics I take a look. But normally no,” he explained. Yet there were things to see in those numbers. Like the 18 unforced errors in the course of those rallies which had made the world’s 42nd-ranked player a good match for Nadal, for a time.

In the years of their high noon, when Nadal and Roger Federer played in every French Open and Wimbledon final for three years, a baseline rally would be settled at a stroke with a surge of force and one of those inimitably powerful, top-spin Nadal forehands.

 

Yet the longer these exchanges went on, the more likely that same stroke would let him down; find the net or sail out of range. There were exceptions to the rule, certainly – the consecutive backhand winners, crosscourt and down the line, which began to settle the first set – but they were infrequent.

Any win was a mercy, because the early rounds have not been kind to Nadal ever since he took the second of his titles here five years ago. The ghosts of Lukas Rosol, whose second-round moment of fame at Nadal’s expense came three years ago, Steve Darcis, who ended things for him even earlier a year later, must have been there, somewhere in the back of his head.

But the Nadal who appeared in the sunshine, busy and bouncing on the spot like some welterweight, was not the rippling physical presence we remember from the best of times. Some of the muscle bulk has gone. The convex thighs and triceps look to have given way to something more conventionally human.

Asked about this perception, Nadal will generally grimace and say that his gear is just not as tight-fitting as it was back then, but that was not the impression as he traded blows with the Brazilian, struggling to finish him off with power.

Briefly, it looked like we might have another of those stories on our hands as a netted sliced backhand put Nadal on the wrong side of two break points in the second game. He even offered Bellucci redemption after saving two breaks, with a double fault to hand one of them back, though to no avail. The younger man lacked the mental faculty to turn this to his advantage.

Nadal was in good spirits later, grateful for small mercies and painfully aware after taking two hours 11 minutes to win 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 of how different the end-games can be.

When I asked him how it felt to be a No 10 seed and carrying his lowest ranking for a decade, on the outside of the tight elite looking in and facing top-50 players while the Wimbledon grass is barely scuffed, there was a smile.

“I am No 10 because I deserve to be No 10,” he replied. “That’s what happens when you are injured for six months and you come back and you are not able to play great. Number 10 is a great number, you know, with only six months of points in the computer for me, when for more than a half of that I was playing terrible and the rest was not fantastic.”

It just did not seem humane to ask Nadal about the way his oldest adversary of all had been making his own attempt to reclaim what he once held at Wimbledon.

It has been three years since Federer was king of this place and the years looked like they had been considerably kinder to him as he went off in search of history on Centre Court.

He will become the first man to win the Wimbledon title eight times if he prevails and the languid ease with which he eased past Damir Dzumhur, a debutant at the tournament, was a foil to what Nadal was trying to close out on the next-door court.

Federer’s speed between the points was almost as striking as the clinical treatment of the ground strokes and the giddying variation in serve. Dzumhur’s presence across the net was a technicality as some of the games glided by. Three straight aces opened the second game of the second set. The whole business was done, 6-1, 6-3, 6-3, in eight minutes over an hour. 

Nadal reflected that this kind of climate helps an individual, like him, who has a wrist injury in his recent past. “It’s difficult to think about a better day to play tennis here at Wimbledon,” he reflected. He next faces Dustin Brown, who beat him in straight sets in last year’s Wimbledon warm-up at Halle.

Life’s not elementary when you are looking to be back where you once belonged.

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