The scream of delight could be heard all the way back to Manacor: the spectre of Centre Court had been banished.
Rafael Nadal had overcome the man-mountain that is Lukas Rosol and made it through to the third round.
It may seem a bit odd to be celebrating the 4-6, 7-6(6), 6-4, 6-4 win of the nine-time French Open champion and 14-time Grand Slam winner over the world No.52, a bloke who splits his time between main tour events and the Challenger circuit, but Nadal and Rosol had previous. Nadal had cause to be wary of the big Czech with the pounding serve.
Two years ago, on a late, dark night on Centre Court, Rosol had caused the upset of all upsets by beating the Spaniard in the second round here. With a barrage of aces and outrageous winners, the then world No.100 did not seem to have a care in the world or a nerve in his body as he pulverised the mighty Nadal. Not even a 43-minute break for the roof to close and the air conditioning units to power up between the fourth and fifth sets could distract or derail him: Rosol was too good for anyone that night.
Two years on and Rosol has not changed a bit. His career still follows the same, erratic path – a decent week here and there and a lot of schlepping around the minor events very few people have heard of – and he has never again produced a giantkilling act of such consistent genius as he did that night in SW19 back in 2012. Now aged 28, he seems doomed to be a journeyman with the potential for moments of brilliance for the rest of his life.
For a couple of sets, it did seem as if Thursday was going to be one of those brilliant moments for the 6ft 5in Czech. After about 20 minutes of eyeing each other up warily, Rosol sniffed a chance. Nadal threw in a duff service game, a sloppy couple of minutes, and Rosol pounced. And as soon as he got that first break, everyone in the stands could see the big man relax – and the last thing Nadal needed was a happy, relaxed and confident Rosol banging down winners. Suddenly Nadal could see a shadowy figure hanging around at the back of the court: it was the ghost of 2012.
For the next half-an-hour, Rosol’s stats went berserk: his first serve percentage shot skywards, his ace count was on the rise, his returns were singeing the grass and his forehand was knocking lumps out of Nadal’s defences. He could do no wrong while his victim was looking worried. Not again. Rosol could not do this to him twice on the same the court and in the same round. Surely that simply could not happen. Nadal frowned and towelled down with even greater intensity.
The first set was wrapped up cleanly, the second set was going well with an early break; Rosol was indeed doing it again. And all the while, Nadal twitched and fiddled as he tried to find a way to turn the match around. The hair was pushed back behind the ears, the sweat was wiped from the brow and nose, the shorts were readjusted, the ball was bounced: no, still can’t think of any way of stopping the big fella. But then, in little fits and starts, there were signs of the real Rafa, the French Open champion Rafa, the Wimbledon champion of 2008 and 2010 Rafa.
As the little glimpses of the ferocious forehand, the deceptive serve and the do-or-die running flickered in front of Rosol, he knew he had to be careful. Many players have their bogeymen, players who, for whatever reason, always manage to get the better of them. Nadal, though, is different. He is scared of the dark – and openly admits it – but within the white lines of tennis court, he fears no one and nothing. The Rosol defeat was a very bad memory but he refused to let it haunt him forever.
With a handful of good returns, Nadal made inroads into Rosol’s serve and finally got his break back. With that safe in his grip, he headed for the tie-break and, having come back from 5-3 down, he ramped up the pressure. Sure enough, Rosol could not take it and with a double fault, he handed over the second set. And that was more or less that as Nadal grabbed the momentum and ran with it towards the finish line.
“I was just trying to fight,” Nadal said. “I was waiting for my moment, trying to find my moment. He was serving very well – that always happens on the grass. That second set was very important for me. To be two sets down against a player like Rosol is very dangerous.”
But to be in the third round with a major hurdle already cleared is very comforting. Well, it is if you are Rafael Nadal. What the other men standing in between him and the latter stages of the competition feel the Spaniard’s progress about remains to be seen. Maybe Mikhail Kukushkin, Nadal’s next opponent, will tell us how that feels when their business is concluded on Saturday.
20:08It brings me no pleasure but it's time to bring the curtain down for another year. Seemed somehow appropriate to leave the last word to Roger Federer. Thanks a billion for reading. What a fortnight, what a final, fast forward to 2015 please...
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