There was talk in tennis land prior to Rafael Nadal’s first round match with Thomaz Bellucci that the Brazilian would prove a tricky test as Rafa began his campaign for a third title at Wimbledon.
It’s unclear exactly how this chatter eventuated, given that Bellucci had never before taken a set off the Spaniard, nor beaten anyone ranked higher than No.79 in just three career wins at the All England Club. And with a mediocre win-loss record of 12-12 this season, Bellucci had slipped to world No.80, down from a career high of No.21 two years earlier.
Immediately after arriving on court, Bellucci set about imposing his brutal game on a player famous for his physicality, monstering serves and forehands to quickly establish a 4-0 lead.
There’s nothing like a Centre Court setting to increase the sense of drama. The packed crowd was stunned, their gasps as Nadal shanked yet another forehand long of the baseline creating an air of heavy tension. Could they, as well as millions more watching around the world, be witnessing the early makings of a titanic upset?
They needn’t have panicked. With stability – even predictability – reigning in the men’s game for some time now, high seeds simply don’t bomb in the first round of a major tournament.
Nadal knows that as well as anybody, as his eventual 7-6(0), 6-2, 6-3 victory over Bellucci attests. He hasn’t fallen in the first week at a Grand Slam event since the 2005 US Open, and has been even more dominant at Wimbledon, reaching the final in each of his past five visits. Sure enough he began to find the range on his groundstrokes this afternoon, reeling in the Brazilian’s lead and dutifully levelling at 4-4.
With the set progressing to a tiebreaker, Bellucci could not maintain his impressive level. Drowning in a sea of mistakes – a botched smash, ill-judged dropped shot, missed return and a pair of forehand errors among them – he gifted Nadal the opening set, and never again came close to the Spaniard.
“The second and third set I played better … I felt in that moment I started to hit better the forehand. That's the most important thing for me,” Nadal reflected after the match.
“In the beginning I didn't really had the best feeling with my forehand. But then I started to feel a little bit better and I was able to hit a few forehands in a row with positive feeling, knowing that I don't want to miss the ball. That's a very important thing, no?”
It wasn’t just his famous forehand that fired as the match wore on. Nadal played a superbly weighted lob on his way to breaking serve in the sixth game of the second set, and secured a two-set lead thanks to a flurry of winners from the back of the court just two games later.
It was more of the same in the third; Nadal continued to draw errors from the Brazilian with his consistent yet varied play from the back of the court to score an early service break. Bellucci rallied briefly by breaking back in the third game, but was again undone by errors as the set progressed, handing Nadal another break in the sixth game. Shortly afterward the Spaniard found himself serving for the match, and he iced victory with an ace down the T.
The 2hr 15min hit-out saw Nadal book a second round meeting with Czech Lukas Rosol. Ever modest and considered, the world No.2 said his goals going forward were simply to navigate his way through a “difficult tournament” by trying his best with each match.
“Hopefully I can play a little bit better in the next round,” he said.
“The important thing and the best feeling for me is that I improved my game during the match (today), and that's important for the practice of tomorrow and the next match.”