How to explain why Nadal either did exceedingly well on the grass or not well at all? The answer is relatively simple. He needs time to reacquaint himself with the grass courts and to play his way into good form, to orchestrate points the way he would like, to find the inner belief to win matches when the courts are so slick at the outset of the event. Things did not go his way the last couple of years when his knees were ailing and his confidence was sorely lacking. A year ago, he never really got going against Darcis and his pain was almost palpable whenever he had to deal with the lower bounces. In 2012, he seemed ready to turn his contest around when he won the fourth set handily from Rosol, but it was not to be. The match was delayed while they put the roof up over Centre Court to make certain darkness did not force a postponement of this clash until the following day, and Rosol served stupendously, releasing seven aces in an astonishing fifth set, never allowing Nadal to get untracked.
But all of that is in the past. Nadal sorely needed a first round victory here in the opening round this year, and he achieved it with a come from behind, four set victory over fellow left-hander Martin Klizan, a fellow ranked No. 51 in the world. Klizan and Nadal had met only once before in their careers, with the Spaniard prevailing 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 in the second round at Roland Garros last year. Today, the scoreline was identical but the conditions were no longer advantageous to Nadal. Klizan was going largely for broke in the early stages, belting his returns with uncompromising pace and depth, serving awfully big whenever he had to, lacing his ground strokes spectacularly during the rallies.
Nadal was up against a streaky ball striker who was totally on his game during a compelling opening set. The Spaniard trailed 0-40 in the first game of the match as the Slovakian produced a lethal dose of scorching forehand returns. But an obstinate Nadal swept five points in a row to hold on, and then had a pair of break points of his own in the second game. But Klizan erased one of those with a devastating 128 MPH first serve to the backhand that Nadal could not handle, and wiped away the second with a scintillating forehand drop shot winner. He held for 1-1.
Both men were in fine fiddle during that entertaining opening set. Nadal cancelled another break point against him in the third game with an ace down the T and advanced to 2-1, but Klizan held at 15 with an ace for 2-2. The battle had been joined on both sides of the net, and neither man was ceding any ground to the other. Klizan had to win that set to have a realistic chance of winning, while for Nadal it was not imperative. And yet, the Spaniard was fighting furiously to avoid falling behind. Nadal served a pair of aces on his way to 3-2, swinging the first one wide with heavy slice in the ad court, closing out that game with an ace down the T at 126 MPH. Klizan responded in kind, serving a 126 MPH ace of his own out wide in the deuce court to hold for 3-3.
There was little to choose between these two men from the backcourt as Klizan sought to be the aggressor in shorter rallies while Nadal looked to assert this authority in longer exchanges. Both men held on for 4-4 before Nadal moved briskly to a 300 lead in the ninth game. Klizan promptly fired a backhand return winner, followed by an aggressive forehand return. At 30-30, Nadal played a forehand drop volley that looked as if it might work, and Klizan easily ran that shot down and steered a backhand winner up the line past the stranded Spaniard. It was break point for Klizan and then Nadal double faulted on a totally miss-hit second serve off a bad toss.
Klizan was serving for the set in the tenth game but he trailed 0-30. Nadal chipped a forehand return wide before missing a forehand down the line. Klizan took the next two points to seal the set. The 24-year-old then tried to find a way to gain an early break in the second set. At 1-1, Nadal was thrice down break point but a pair of unstoppable inside out forehands allowed the Spaniard to rally for deuce. Klizan garnered a third break point, but Nadal aced him out wide with a 98 MPH slice serve in the ad court. After Klizan held on for 2-2, Nadal went methodically to work. He held at 15 for 3-2 with aplomb and then reached 15-40 in the sixth game.
Klizan saved the first break point with an ace, the second when Nadal missed a passing shot, and the third with a superbly placed first serve down the T to the backhand that Nadal netted on the return. But Nadal unleashed a forehand winner and got the break when Klizan was off the mark with a running forehand long. At 4-2, Nadal drifted to 0-30 but collected four points in a row, picking away at his fellow southpaws suspect second serve. Two games later, serving for the set at 5-3, Nadal was down 15-40 but he was magnificent at this crucial juncture.
Nadal used an inside out forehand approach to set up an open court forehand drop volley winner. The Spaniard held on ably from there and the match was locked at one set all. Nadal, however had all of the momentum, and he kept pressing on. In the opening game of the third set, Klizan had a 40-15 lead but was broken as Nadal made return after return off the first serve. Nadal held at 15 for 2-0 with another terrifically timed journey to the net, and he soared to 3-0. Klizan captured two games in a row, but Nadal buckled down admirably to hold at love for 4-2 with a combination of supreme forehand aggression and some excellent strategic serving. Klizan held on in the seventh game but, serving at 4-3, Nadal was utterly inspired.
At 30-30 in that game, he approached the net and punched a backhand volley down the line. Klizan lobbed deftly over the Spaniards head, but Nadal chased that shot down. Klizan now released a drop shot but Nadal scampered forward and re-dropped off his backhand. Klizan countered with a backhand down the line pass, but Nadal saw that shot coming and punched a backhand volley into the open court, Nadal held on for 5-3 and then broke again to seal the set. He had broken three times and had played his best sustained tennis of the contest.
The Spaniard broke for a 3-1 fourth set lead and then held at 15 for 4-1, punctuating that game with an inside out forehand winner and a delayed forehand down the line approach that set up a winning volley into the open court. He seemed ready to conclude the battle with a burst of confidence and aggression, but it got complicated. Nadal was up 4-2, 40-30 but Klizans dazzling forehand drop shot winner brought the score back to deuce. Nadal was given a time violation as he bounced the ball to serve at deuce, and then he bungled a forehand. Klizan soon broke back for 3-4, but Nadal had completely found his range on his returns. He broke at 15 for 5-3 and served for the match in the ninth game.
A surprisingly apprehensive Nadal opened that game with a double fault, moved to 30-15, but then netted a two-hander crosscourt. He produced a brilliant, biting, low sliced backhand down the line that set up a forehand winner up the line. It was match point for the Spaniard, but Klizans pace on the return was too much for Nadal, who erred off the forehand. Klizan advanced to break point with a dazzling backhand passing shot, but Nadal remained composed. A wide slice serve in the ad court provoked an errant return from Klizan. On the next two points from deuce, Klizan missed backhands down the line. Nadal had triumphed 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3.
To be sure, this was not vintage Nadal, who had some anxious moments and made life unnecessarily difficult for himself at various stages of the match. The fact remains that is it never easy playing an explosive and wildly unpredictable left-hander on a grass court in the first round, before you are acclimated, before you have found your range, before you have had time to get match tough. All in all, it was a good start for the Spaniard.
Now he has a Wimbledon rematch with the dangerous Rosol on Thursday, and the feeling grows that Nadal will be the victor this time around, perhaps in four sets. He should improve decidedly with each and every match. He figures to start playing an increasingly confident brand of tennis. Rafael Nadal remains in the hunt at Wimbledon, and that is just the way it should be.
<Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.
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