What do Lukas Rosol, Steven Darcis, Nick Kyrgios, Dustin Brown and Gilles Muller have in common?
For fans of one of the sport’s greatest players, this should be a no-brainer. Apart from Kyrgios, these names stick out for being journeymen who have ended Rafael Nadal’s Wimbledon campaign early in the last six years. Four of them were ranked below 100 at the time of the win; four of those wins were in the first week of the grass-court Grand Slam.
In what was frivolously called a “jinx”, Nadal hasn’t reached the quarter-finals at the All England Club since finishing runner-up to Novak Djokovic in 2011. In fact, after five straight Wimbledon finals between 2006-’08, 2010-’11 (he didn’t play in 2009 due to injury), this is the first time that he has reached the last eight.
The quietly efficient manner in which the world No 1 has ended this “jinx” should be a warning call to his opponents. He may be called the “King of Clay” and may have had a love-hate relationship with grass this decade, but the 17-time Grand Slam champion is not a one-surface pony. Especially this new version, winning the US Open, and reaching the final and quarters at the Australian Open in the last two years.
A decade – and several injuries – after his first Wimbledon title in a match that has gone down as the greatest Grand Slam final, he is still at his peak, assured of retaining his world No 1 status no matter where he finishes this week. Leave aside the amazement at this longevity, and focus on this instead: every time Nadal has reached the quarters, he has gone on to play the finals, lifting the trophy twice. At this rate, Spain looks set to be in one final this Sunday, in England, if not in Russia.
Seamless switch from clay
Heading into Wimbledon after a long (for Nadal) and arduous (for his opponents) clay season, most of the players who made a deep run at the French Open have fallen prey to the difficult transition to grass. Nadal himself didn’t play a single competitive match on grass, pulling out of the tournament at Queen’s to rest after his 11th title at Roland Garros, choosing to practise on the grass courts at home in Mallorca.
After his injury-forced withdrawal, there were many calls for him to skip the grass season, like Roger Federer had missed clay. Conserve the body, don’t exert it on a surface that has little returns, at a Major where he hasn’t made a mark in six years. Gone are the days where he could transition from clay to grass easily – that was younger man with more solid knees and more mobile arms.
But Nadal silenced all those talks with his smooth display on Centre Court, showing he is as much an all-round player as the other members of ‘Big Four’. Having said that, it is still astounding that the 32-year-old has switched surfaces so seamlessly after having spent a good part of the early season injured. His comeback from what should have been another career-ending injury in 2017 was terrific, but the way he has sustained after that is even more praiseworthy.
This is the first time in six years that he has made four successive quarter-finals at Grand Slams. Other than Novak Djokovic, he is the only male player to reach quarter-finals at all three Slams in 2018. Nadal has successfully reinvented his physically-intensive game with Carlos Moya, to the point where he is now a genuine challenger for Wimbledon.
Sailing on grass
At the Championships, he is yet to drop a set this year, like Federer, and has played some of his most attacking tennis from his favoured position near the baseline, on grass. A year back, or perhaps even a month ago, this would have been an unlikely scenario.
It is not that Nadal isn’t still a force of nature every time he takes his own sweet time to serve or stand coiled to return. But that force has certainly diminished in terms of physicality. He cruised through the French Open, but not before Simone Bolelli or Diego Scwatrzman troubled him. That was a sign that the grass won’t be kind to his legs and let him grind through rallies.
But on Centre Court, the world No 1 has shown the “Matador” side of him once again. Serve sharp, keep a steely grip on returns, force that extra shot, induce that error.
It is not that his opponents have been the complete pushovers, as many claim. Australian teenager Alex De Minaur was a genuine threat, even in his debut Wimbledon championships. Hadn’t another teen from Down Under, ranked 144 back then, beaten Nadal to announce his arrival four years ago? For 80th-ranked Alex de Minaur, almost as talented as Kyrgios, it was a huge opportunity on Centre Court. Instead, it was s 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 rout, as the second seed drilled in the point – this is the new version of Nadal.
Playing 6’6” Jiri Vesely, who had beaten Fabio Fognini, he was up against a left-hander with a good serve, a la Muller who had just not let him settle on grass last year. The response: A 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 win where Nadal recovered even after going a break down in the third set.
He had cruised through the first three rounds at Wimbledon last year as well, before being out-grinded by Muller in the fourth, a game that was won 13-11 in the decider. This year, he hasn’t given anyone a chance to consolidate a break against him, exuding confidence and power like a younger Nadal, with longer hair, did.
The Channel Slam is difficult, almost impossible given the vagaries of the game and surface. But Nadal is the only man to do it twice in this generation. And the way he is playing, he could well be on course to do it again.
He is slated to play the winner of the Juan Martin del Potro-Gilles Simon match that was extended to Tuesday due to bad light. If del Potro wins, he will have to face Nadal on his third successive day of play, a draining exercise. But no matter the opponent, it will take an extraordinary performance to stop the Spaniard from lifting the trophy he first won a decade ago.
Against de Minaur, he hit an outrageous tweener lob. It got people marveling at his quickfire reflexes. Nadal has been the embodied that shot through the first seven days at Wimbledon, unexpected perhaps but very, very effective.