Steve Flink: Nadal, No Sure Thing at Wimbledon, Rolls in First Match Since French

LONDON—The beauty of watching Rafael Nadal play the game of tennis in his inimitable way is simply this: he approaches each match at every tournament he plays with the same single-minded pursuit of perfection and a fundamental respect for all his opponents, regardless of their ranking status, no matter how easy his task may appear to be. Nadal is the ultimate professional, unswerving in his integrity as a competitor, a professional through and through, and a fellow who will not surrender his hard earned reputation as an uncompromising craftsman with a will to win that is unsurpassed in his trade.

Today, the 32-year-old Spaniard opened his bid for a third title in his 13th appearance at the shrine of the sport, and took apart Israel’s Dudi Sela 6-3, 6-3, 6-2 on the Centre Court. The conditions suited him to the hilt. Much more often than not, the courts are slick during the first week, the ball is skidding through awkwardly and low, and Nadal struggles to find a rhythm. But this year in the weeks leading up to Wimbledon, the weather has been consistently hot, the sun has been shining brightly, and the courts have hardened much sooner than usual on the British grass.

To say that all of those things bolster Nadal and encourage him for the path ahead is putting it lightly. He has told us all across his storied career how the warmer weather and the strength of the sun are what he wants when he steps on a tennis court, here in Great Britain or anywhere else. On this balmy afternoon on the Centre Court, it was strikingly apparent how Nadal’s mood is enhanced by the blue skies above and the intensity of the sun. He was an exuberant performer, an athlete in his element, and a man at peace with himself. In no way was this good news for Sela.

Nevertheless, Sela did stay with Nadal for a while in the first set, sparring well with the Spaniard from the backcourt in the early stages, backing up his serve adeptly, giving his adversary no openings to gain a clear advantage in shaping the nature of the contest. The 33-year-old Israeli is a player who has concluded ten of the last eleven seasons stationed among the Top 100 in the world, and that is no mean feat.

Sela’s game is not particularly imposing, but he knows how to play the game in a versatile fashion, mixing in some serve-and-volley, flattening out his one-handed backhand periodically, looking for ways to break up patterns and take opponents out of their rhythm. He did all of this exceptionally well at the outset of this appointment with Nadal. And there were some moments of discomfort for the Spaniard.

In the opening game of the match, Nadal double faulted at 30-0 and then Sela connected for a forehand return winner to make it 30-30. Sela came in behind his return effectively, but Nadal made a difficult play look ridiculously easy, flicking a backhand half volley pass down the line for a winner. He held on at 30, but Sela answered with a love hold for 1-1. Now both men held at 30 to make it 2-2. Nadal moved to 3-2 with another hold at 30 before Sela took his serve at love.

And so it was 3-3, and until this juncture Nadal had been hard pressed to stamp his authority on the match. But now he raised the stakes higher, and Sela was made to look essentially helpless. Nadal held at love for 4-3 with two unstoppable first serves, a forehand volley winner and an ace out wide. He broke at love for 5-3 on a Sela double fault, and then held his serve at love to seal the set 6-3, closing that chapter by collecting the last 12 points of the set.

That set had changed complexion decidedly over the last three games. When it mattered, Nadal took his game on an upward path, while Sela could not rise to meet the larger challenge. Nadal immediately broke at love to start the second set, and had now collected no fewer than 16 points in a row. He held in a deuce game for 2-0, sweeping his fifth game in a row. Sela at last got on the second-set scoreboard to hold in the third game, but Nadal was unstoppable now, holding at love for 3-1. Sela managed to escape from 15-40 in the fifth game but Nadal was unimpressed, holding at 15 with a 123-M.P.H. ace down the T for 4-2.

The Spaniard was playing too well now. After Sela held in the seventh game, Nadal surged to 5-3 with another comfortable hold, and gained another break in the ninth game by lacing a forehand return down the line for a winner at 30-40. Nadal garnered the set 6-3, and was looking borderline invincible.

And yet, after a bathroom break, Nadal returned to the court and lost his serve for the first and only time in the match, double faulting at 30-40 to hand Sela a 1-0 lead—and an opportunity to widen his third-set advantage. But the Spaniard commenced the second game with an artistic backhand drop volley winner, and broke at 30 for 1-1.

Sela’s spirit was essentially broken. Nadal captured the next two games for 3-1, and obstinately fought his way through a four deuce fifth game, saving a pair of break points on his way to 4-1. Although Sela managed one more hold, he was a disheartened competitor. Nadal held easily for 5-2 and broke again in a five deuce final game. It was a routine victory for Nadal, but, considering that he had not played an official match since his final-round victory over Dominic Thiem at Roland Garros, his form was commendable.

One significant attribute for the Spaniard was his serving. He clearly was adjusting to the grass and recognizing that he needed to beef up his delivery to set a tone not only for this match but the entire tournament. His average first serve speed was 112 M.P.H. and his second serve average was 100 M.P.H. Nadal unleashed a couple of 126 M.P.H. first serves and was frequently in the range of 117 to 123 M.P.H. Moreover, his whirlwind topspin forehand was humming, and he set the tempo almost entirely with that fearsome stroke.

For Nadal, this was a welcome win. To be sure, he always figured to handle Sela under any circumstances, but the score line was surely gratifying.

As he said afterwards, “It was a good start for me. I did [some] things very well and other things that I need to improve. I did a lot of games good with my serve, and other ones that I suffered a little bit. I am happy more or less with my forehand. I went to the net quite often. I can of course improve on the return side. The return was the worst thing that I did this afternoon.”

That piece of self-analysis was typical of Nadal. He was examining his performance simultaneously with utter honesty and self-effacement. But the bottom line is that he was efficient, purposeful and confident against an opponent who could not hurt him much.

Considering Nadal’s struggles on the lawns of the All England Club in recent years, he fully appreciates any match triumphs, and where they might take him over the rest of the fortnight. From 2006 through 2011, he played all but one Wimbledon, taking two titles, reaching three other finals. Since 2012, however, his fortunes have seriously declined. In five appearances, he has failed to advance beyond the fourth round. A slump of that kind has not happened to Nadal at any other major.

The fact remains, however, that he played inspired and unrelentingly aggressive tennis last year at Wimbledon before losing a heartbreaker to Gilles Muller 15-13 in the fifth set in a riveting Court 1, round-of-16 skirmish. Had he come through in that encounter, Nadal would have had a good chance to reach the final, and set up a fourth title-round meeting with Roger Federer.

A similar opportunity awaits the Spaniard this time around. He seems to have a clear path to the quarterfinals, and a potential showdown with Juan Martin del Potro. From there, anything could happen. Roger Federer remains the clear favorite to take this title, but Nadal will profit in many ways if the weather stays hot and the courts are playing harder. He is a singularly driven individual who is tired of critics telling him he can no longer be a factor on the grass.

Rafael Nadal unmistakably believes he can put himself in a position to win his third title here. In the final analysis, his mindset and clarity of vision may matter more than anything else in determining how he fares at the most important tournament in all of tennis.

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