Just for a moment, it looked as if Rafael Nadal was developing a serious losing habit on grass. Given that the 14-time Grand Slam champion arrived at Wimbledon 2014 without a win on the green stuff for two years, a ripple of shock buzzed around the Centre Court when he surrendered the first set against Martin Klizan.
Just a year ago Nadal was on the wrong end of the shock result of the entire tennis year when the world No.135 Steve Darcis beat him in straight sets in the first round here. By that reasoning Klizan’s ranking of No.51 should prove no barrier to another sensation. But actually there was a greater obstacle in the Slovak’s way, and that was Nadal’s competitive will. Once he had forced Klizan to relinquish the second set, the crisis was averted.
The Slovak stayed in it but Nadal would not surrender control, although he allowed himself to be broken when umpire Fergus Murphy warned him for time violation at 4-2 in the fourth. But by then it was too late, and he emerged the 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 winner.
“It was a positive match for me because I won,” explained the world No.1, and it was difficult to argue with his reasoning. After all, it was more than he could manage in last year’s first round, or two years ago in the second round where Lukas Rosol saw him off – the very same Lukas Rosol he will now face in his next match. It has long been said that Nadal was particularly irked by Rosol’s manner in victory that day, and that any subsequent triumph over him here would be particularly sweet.
“I lost because he is a very good player and he plays very well on this surface,” stated Nadal of that 2012 joust. “He’s aggressive. I need to play very well. If not, I won’t be in the third round.” Again, you couldn’t fault his logic.
Klizan was certainly up for this first-round match with the 2008 and 2010 champion. Early on he was finding the lines especially with his backhand, and was clearly a danger. Of course he was in the typical position of a far lower ranked opponent of having nothing to lose and therefore able to throw everything at Nadal - but actually at 4-4 it was Nadal himself who muffed a volley beyond an open court for break point, and then delivered a truly grim double fault to hand over the break. Nadal pushed to 0-30 in his attempts to level, but Klizan took four straight points to serve it out. Cue that buzz of shock around Centre Court.
These two had met just once before at the French Open last year, and the fact of the venue alone is sufficient clue to Nadal’s eventual victory. On that occasion Klizan also took the first set 6-4 – and in a greater coincidence, the subsequent three sets followed an identical pattern too. At Roland Garros it is always difficult to believe Nadal could be in serious trouble, whereas at Wimbledon 2014 he looked thoroughly unhappy after that first set.
He arrived having played just one match on grass this year – a straight sets defeat to Dustin Brown in Halle two weeks ago. But that match took place just four days after Nadal’s ninth title win in Paris, and it seems reasonable that the gigantic mental effort of defending his kingdom there sapped his strength for Halle.
Nadal has won so many times there that the biggest story at Roland Garros now is either Nadal Wins or Nadal Loses; the name of the person who might defeat him – even were it Djokovic – would be of lesser significance. The mental resources required to withstand that challenge year in and year out must be huge. Small wonder he has arrived at Wimbledon these last two years and found the well has quickly run dry. But his champion’s mindset means that he is not sated by his epoch-making Roland Garros achievements, and he wants success here too.
“Grass is a difficult surface but I have it in my heart because here was one of the most important tournaments of my career,” Nadal mused. “I’m not going to lie – when you go on the Centre Court and you have lost last year in the first round and the year before in the second round, it stays on your mind.
“But when I lost the first set, I was not thinking about what happened last year or two years ago or five years ago. I was thinking about the next point and finding a solution. What is past is past. I prefer to win the first set, but I’m not the only one on court. My opponent is playing too and playing good and wants to win.
“On clay I don’t have to think a lot about what I have to do because everything comes together automatically. I haven’t played much on grass for the last three years. It’s always like starting again. You have to adjust movement and rhythm, find the right places to serve. The only way to do that is play matches.”
Crisis? What crisis?
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