Rafael Nadal’s launchpad to Wimbledon at Queen’s Club
Within a day of winning his record-equalling sixth French Open, Rafael Nadal was bound for London
The apparent madness in this punishing schedule clearly has some method in it.
Last year, Nadal won back-to-back French Open and Wimbledon titles, and to achieve that particularly difficult double Slam success requires acclimatisation to grass during an all-too-brief two-week window between the two tournaments.
By Monday evening, he was at Queen’s, a place for which he has much affection: “It’s one of the most beautiful of the world, I think, the centre court.”
By Tuesday morning, he was practising against the sky-blue backdrop of the Aegon branding. In brilliant orange, the torso of the Spaniard almost vibrated against its complementary, much as a dancing Matisse figure.
The urgency in Nadal’s grass preparation spoke loud and clear in his decision to play not just the singles at Queen’s but also the doubles alongside his best friend Marc Lopez.
The urgency also burst from every sinew in what is surely the most intense practice session from any player on the tour. There are, quite simply, no half measures.
So, despite having a bye in the first round of the singles draw, his first competitive match was put on Centre Court at the end of a packed Tuesday.
The duo won, though the pairing retired after losing a first set tie-break in their second match. Little wonder: Nadal came to London on the back of seven consecutive finals, five of them Masters events, one a Grand Slam, three of them yielding titles. He had notched up 49 matches.
He admitted, too, that he had this year found Roland Garros particularly demanding.
“The energy is not in perfect condition right now, but I’m here to try my best, as usual. My conditions are not perfect because I feel everything like a little bit more tight than usual.”
His first-round match over Matthew Ebden -Nadal’s first singles match on grass since winning Wimbledon last year -was a straightforward win. Now dressed in French Open blue-and-white, he merged with rather than stood out from his background, a geometric coloured patchwork of summer skies and cloud.
With his place at the World Tour Finals in London confirmed, Nadal’s next step towards reaching an eighth straight tour-level final came in the more threatening shape of Radek Stepanek, a veteran of the all-court, serve-and-volley skills that thrive on grass.
The Czech had already beaten No16 seed, Ivan Ljubicic in three sets and he very nearly upset Nadal, too. The top seed appeared to be in complete command as he glided ahead by a set and a 5-2 lead. But serving for the match at 5-3, and with a 40-15 advantage, he lost a touch of concentration -rare indeed for Nadal -and Stepanek seized the moment and the set.
By now it was early evening -the schedule thrown out by earlier rain -and Nadal urgently refocused, upped the pace and ran off a 6-1 set.
In the quarter-finals for the fifth time in as many visits to Queen’s, Nadal then faced No5 seed, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Once again, rain disrupted the day’s schedule and the two men arrived on court in late afternoon sun. All too soon, however, the rain returned but Nadal, in one of the more bizarre moments of a frustrating on-off week of play, stubbornly sat it out with a towel around his shoulders.
The court was covered and Tsonga and the officials had left, but Nadal asked for an umbrella, signed a few autographs and waited. The Canute of the tennis court finally gave way to the inevitable and retreated to the locker room.
On his return, Nadal resisted a bombardment of exceptional serving from Tsonga to take the first set in tie-break, but the long months of competition, the long hours of waiting through London’s rain delays and the two-and-a-half-hours it took to beat Stepanek started to show in the Nadal body and game.
Tsonga upped the aggression and took advantage of a growing number of Nadal errors to run away with the decisive sets, 6-4 6-1.
It was the same stage of the competition at which Nadal ran out of steam against Feliciano Lopez last year and, on that occasion, it proved to be precisely the right amount of preparation for what lay ahead.
And Nadal’s exit ahead of the weekend will again be seen as a blessing in disguise. He has been able to return to his beloved Mallorca for a much-needed rest.
Even Nadal’s pride conceded that much: “The negative thing is I lost. The positive thing is I have few days off and can stop a little bit mentally. I can be a little bit more relaxed. I wake up every day with that pressure that you have to play, which is not easy, and that’s what happened to me the last four months.”
He will spend time with family and friends, and relax with some golf and some fishing, knowing that enforced rest and recuperation is the best preparation for his next challenge: defence of his Wimbledon title and of his No1 ranking. Nadal will return to London at the end of next week, rested, enthused and with some valuable matches in those powerful legs.
The two men behind Nadal in the rankings, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, both pulled out of their pre-Wimbledon events with minor injury -the former in Halle, the latter in London -after one of the most demanding seasons on the tour.
Queen’s, and the tennis fans of London, are fortunate indeed that Nadal made his early trip to its lawns once again. It may have been short but it has been, as always, a privilege.