Neither man had played for nearly six weeks, and the signs of rust were there in NadalÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hour-and-a-half opening set. He made 27 unforced errors on the way to his longest ever tie-break against a battling Stanislas Wawrinka.
Nadal needed 14 points to win that tie-break, but it gave him the momentum and confidence to take the second set 6-3. So far, so like FedererÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s opener. Sartorially, though, Nadal showed rather more bravado than Federer. Not content with wearing pink, he sported an eye-popping, hibiscus-red, skin-hugging number. Subtle it was not. Cut to intimidate it was.
Already with five titles this year, including two Slams, he also has a tour-leading 48-5 match record. He doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t need any help from the shirt.
One man whoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s standing toe-to-toe with Nadal in the confidence stakes is David Nalbandian. He was on a career-best 10-match winning streak ahead of what promised to be the biggest test of them allÃ¢â‚¬â€against world No5 Robin Soderling.
The Nalbandian serve let him down in the first set, but his sizzling form returned for the second and third to take the match in around two hours. Not only did he pound, slice, and lob his opponent into submission but he seemed to have the eye of an eagle in picking up one of the biggest serves on the tour.
After his popular win, the glowering Argentine transformed into an articulate, pragmatic interviewee, who spoke frankly of his fears following surgery and of the pleasure he is taking in tennis again. The next match will pose him an altogether different problem in the form of Andy Murray.
The next centre court match pitched two fathers against one another. Federer and Michael Llodra have been on the tour together since their early teens, but had never played in a ranking match. When they did, it was always going to be a beauty. Both men are fluid, attacking players, one left-handed, one right-handed, both masters of that most elegant of shots, the single-handed backhand.
Federer was caught on the back foot by the serve-and-volley play of Llodra and went down 3-0 before acclimatising to the FrenchmanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s net-attacking ways.
Federer is clearly trying to cultivate his own net game, and that made for short rallies and crisp placement. He broke back in the seventh game with some good serving and great placement on his ground strokes. He swamped Llodra in the tie-break 7-2.
In the second set, both men played with great freedom and touch, tempting each other into the net, firing off overheads, lobs and drops. There were smiles all roundÃ¢â‚¬â€and thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a rarity from Federer on court. He was clearly relishing this net-chasing, cat-and-mouse stuff. Freed of all inhibitions, his tennis flowed like honey, and he served out a near-perfect game to win 6-3.
In another very un-Federer-like moment, and to cheers from the fans, he happily exchanged shirts with the Frenchman. Maybe he has just got tired of all the Ã¢â‚¬Ëœpretty in pinkÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ comments.
At the same time, in a real contrast of mood, gloom continued to swamp the Russian Nikolay Davydenko in his match against Jeremy Chardy. He has not won more than a single match in any tournament since February, and his extended absence with a wrist fracture seems to have thoroughly broken his confidence. He was comprehensively beaten 6-3, 6-2.
Tomas Berdych beat the young up-and coming Alexandr Dolgopolov in three sets for a much-anticipated rematch against Federer. Berdych had the trainer on court twice for treatment to a sore thigh, a worrying factor for FridayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s quarterfinal.
By a nice coincidence, Federer was carrying a similar injury when he lost to Berdych in the quarter-finals at Wimbledon. The Swiss will have a point to prove, though whether he yet has enough matches under his belt to get his revenge remains to be seen.
The last big match of the day session featured Andy Murray, who started out against Gael Monfils much as heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d finished against Xavier Malisse. He was hitting with great purpose, great depth, and real zip. Even against the super-fast Monfils, Murray looked fast and strong, and blew him off the court 6-2.
That was just the beginning of what turned into a see-saw drama. Murray completely lost his way in the second set and Monfils took off. With error after error, Murray floundered to a 6-0 loss.
The fireworks resumed in the third, with Murray working through the diving antics of Monfils to an early break. The Frenchman sought treatment to a damaged shoulder, though his game continued to challenge Murray all the way to its 6-3 conclusion.
Murray continues to look very fit, fast, and strong. If he can string together a whole match to the same level as ThursdayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s first set he may have a chance against Nalbandian in the quarter-finals. But nothing less will do.
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