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Wimbledon: Rafael Nadal proves he is still able to pack a punch

By Ian Herbert

Rafael Nadal didn't stint on the euphoria. It poured out of him, like the sweat which dripped from his brow, in a way that did not befit a first-round win from a man who has cast a vast shadow across the game.

Punching the air and casting wristbands to the farthest corner of Court No 1: that's what victory looks like when winning is no longer a summer breeze and when you have stopped swaggering around these courts with menace.

Some insouciance was restored by the time Nadal arrived to talk about his three-set win over Thomaz Bellucci - a deceptively comfortable margin - but he first scrutinised the sheet of match statistics in front of him and there seemed to be something significant in that.

"If they give me the statistics I take a look. But normally I don't," he explained. Yet there were things to see in those numbers. Like the 18 unforced errors in the course of those rallies which had made the world's 42nd-ranked player a good match for Nadal, for a time.

In the years of their high noon, when Nadal and Roger Federer played in every French Open and Wimbledon final for three years, a baseline rally would be settled at a stroke with a surge of force and one of those inimitably powerful, top-spin Nadal forehands.

Yet the longer these exchanges went on, the more likely that same stroke would let him down; find the net or sail out of range. There were exceptions to the rule, certainly - the consecutive backhand winners, cross-court and down the line, which began to settle the first set - but they were infrequent.

Any win was a mercy, because the early rounds have not been kind to Nadal ever since he took the second of his titles here five years ago. The ghosts of Lukas Rosol, whose second-round moment of fame at Nadal's expense came three years ago, and Steve Darcis, who ended things for him even earlier a year later, must have been there, somewhere in the back of his head, yesterday.

But the Nadal who appeared in the sunshine, busy and bouncing on the spot like some welterweight, was not the rippling physical presence we remember from the best of times. Some of the muscle bulk has gone. The convex thighs and triceps look to have given way to something more conventionally human.

Asked about this perception, Nadal will generally grimace and say that his gear is just not as tight-fitting as it was back then, but that was not the impression as he traded blows with the Brazilian, struggling to finish him off with power.

Briefly, it looked like we might have another of those stories on our hands as a netted sliced backhand put Nadal on the wrong side of two break points in the second game. He even offered Bellucci redemption after saving two breaks, with a double fault to hand one of them back, though to no avail. The younger man lacked the mental faculty to turn this to his advantage.

Nadal was in good spirits later, grateful for small mercies and painfully aware after taking two hours 11 minutes to win 6-4 6-2 6-4 of how different the end-games can be.

When I asked him how it felt to be a No 10 seed and carrying his lowest ranking for a decade, on the outside of the tight elite looking in, there was a smile.

"I am No 10 because I deserve to be No 10," he replied. "That's what happens when you are injured for six months and you come back and you are not able to play great.

"Number 10 is a great number, with only six months of points in the computer for me, when for more than a half of that I was playing terrible and the rest was not fantastic."

Lying in wait for Spaniard Nadal next tomorrow though will be Dustin Brown, a tricksy player he knows can cause him trouble on grass, because Brown beat him last June in Halle, Germany.

"It is difficult to think about how the match is going to be. He's not a usual player. Anything can happen," said Nadal.

"He beat me last year in Halle. It is a dangerous match. He's a tough player. He won today against a good opponent in Lu (Yen-hsun).

"He will probably come with good confidence. I'm going to try to be ready for it."

Brown, who represented Jamaica until 2010, counts grass as his favourite surface and saw off Taiwanese player Lu 3-6 6-3 7-5 6-4.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, meanwhile, was pushed all the way by Luxembourg's Gilles Muller, a player who beat Grigor Dimitrov at Queen's Club.

The 13th seed from France came through a 7-6 (10-8) 6-7 (3-7) 6-4 3-6 6-2 winner, a searching examination that should set him up well for the tests to come.

"I thought it was going to be difficult, and it was. He's a very good player, especially on grass and indoors. He likes that kind of surface," Tsonga said.

"In the end, the most important is to win, and I think I did a good job."

Ivo Karlovic, the 36-year-old from Croatia with a vicious serve, fired down 42 aces in beating Sweden's Elias Ymer 6-7 (2-7) 6-2 6-4 7-6 (7-2).

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