Rafael Nadal hits back to escape another SW19 horror show
Published 27/06/2014 | 10:00
For a set and a half at least, Rafael Nadal understood what it must be like to face himself, each point a crisis, each ball a bullet with his name on it.
Lukas Rosol's was the kind of unfathomable performance that used to enrage Sir Alex Ferguson, the sight of a Manchester United red shirt the signal to raise commitment and effort in some opponents to a level way above the Saturday norm.
Rosol is a repeat offender, his victory over Nadal on this court two years ago a reverse that ruptured the first week of the tournament.
Officials were mobilised yesterday to administer first aid and distribute emergency blankets to Centre Court purists unable to cope with a repeat.
It seems incredible that Nadal should be holding on a second time waiting for a storm to blow out on the other side of the net.
Rosol, a man who disappears between meetings with Nadal, was just impenetrable on serve.
And on return he had his opponent on his heels far too often for the comfort of loyal Nadalistas suffering flashbacks to the 20 aces and three score clean winners Rosol unleashed in that first encounter. "If he plays well, it is difficult for everybody, not just me," Nadal said with a raised eyebrow that questioned why he doesn't raise a lick more often.
"The players who are able to serve 130 miles, good first serve, good second serve, and hit the ball that quick with his forehand and his backhand, especially on this kind of surface, will be dangerous for everybody."
After weathering the storm, Nadal closed out a 4-6 7-6 (8-6) 6-4 6-4 victory.
He opened with a service game to love, but by increments his opponent crunched his intent, catching Nadal increasingly cold on the baseline with the power of his returns.
The fidget count rocketed. Nadal pulled at his shorts, front and back, his shirt at the shoulder, right and left, and went around the perimeter of his head adjusting hair and headband.
None of it had any bearing on the pace and accuracy of the ball coming back.
Rosol is made for grass. Tall and rangy with a big serve and, on days like this, an intuitive feel for the dimensions of a tennis court.
Nadal's defences held out until the ninth game and that was that, Rosol converted the break by serving out the set.
So for the second match in succession, Nadal found himself a set down. At this point in the first round against Martin Klizan, the sense of alarm quickly passed.
Here it deepened, with Rosol the first to strike in the second set, and how, breaking Nadal to love with an imperious cross-court backhand to lead 3-2.
The complexion of the match had now changed. Rosol had something to lose, and the prospect of doing just that set off in Nadal the kind of response that defines him.
For the first time in the match, Rosol began to feel the weight of what might be.
Sensing his opponent tightening on serve, Nadal fashioned his first break points of the match to level in the eighth game.
Uncle Toni was on his feet in the family section screaming "vamos" in triplicate.
The set would go to a tiebreak and Nadal was required to save a set point with a brilliant forehand winner before taking it when Rosol double-faulted into the net.
Nadal identified the set point saved as the deal-breaker, the moment his opponent began to leak resolve, and his own stature to reveal itself.
"The difference maybe is one point," he said. "Maybe if I lose that set point in the second set, if that forehand down the line went out, maybe I will be here with a loss.
"But that's sport. That forehand was perfect for that moment.
"It is true that even if I was losing, I was fighting for every ball, mentally, physically.
"The positive thing about tennis, I was able to find solutions."
The pre-match narrative invited us to make much of the defeat two years ago, and wrap around the return a sense of significance Nadal insists just wasn't there.
He claimed that this was just another engagement. Maybe that is why he is able to do what he does and we observe in a state of wonder.
"When I am playing the match today, I am not thinking about the match two years ago," he said.
"I am thinking what I have to do to win the next point in the match. What happened happened. That's it.
"We already congratulate him for two years ago.
"Today is another history, another story. I needed to find the solution. Finally I did."
Rosol felt Nadal had got "lucky" on some key points, and was less than impressed by what he felt were unsportsmanlike delaying tactics from the world number one, who made adjustments to his racket handle when serving.
"I think all the players should have the same time between the points, but always the best players, they are taking much more than the normal players, and nobody is telling them nothing. I don't know why," he said.
"When the game starts it was not 30 seconds, it was always one minute. He is doing all his rituals. Somebody has to tell them something.
"I just said at times to the referee if it is still okay, and he was saying to me 'yes, it was fine'. This is not the point why I lost today, it did not bother me, but the referee was not going with the rules."