Wimbledon 2014: Young guns on hold as old hand Rafael Nadal begins to roll

Wimbledon 2014: Rafael Nadal comes from a set down to beat Mikhail Kukushkin and reach the fourth round

rafael nadal
Rafael Nadal beat Mikhail Kukushkin in four sets Photo: Marianne Bevis

It has become a section of the draw that could turn into a battle of the generations.

The bottom half threw four of the most promising young players on the tour into competition with four 32-year-old men determined to take their own places in the fourth round of Wimbledon. And while the young quartet—23-year-olds Jerzy Janowicz and Milos Raonic, and two former junior No1s, 20-year-old Jiri Vesely and 19-year old Nick Kyrgios—had, not surprisingly, many fresh targets in their sights, those four mature players had their own expectations and hopes.

Last year, Lukasz Kubot recorded his best Grand Slam performance by reaching the quarter-finals—he lost to Janowicz, who went on to record his first Wimbledon semi. He was ranked 130, but now was No72, and it was his misfortune to play another of the ‘young guns’, the No8 seed Raonic.

Again, Wimbledon was bringing out his best: He recorded back-to-back match-wins for the first time this year, though had also marked a career first this season, his first Grand Slam doubles title at the Australian Open.

Feliciano Lopez, No19 seed, took on 29-year-old No9 seed, John Isner, and came to Wimbledon in the best form of his life. He arrived having successfully defended his Eastbourne title last week and also reached the final at Queen’s the previous week to become the first player to reach back-to-back grass-court finals prior to Wimbledon since 2001, when Lleyton Hewitt did the same.

Wimbledon, over the years, has marked Lopez’s best Grand Slam, with three quarter-final finishes, and now he had reached the third round without dropping a set in his 50th consecutive Major.

No23 seed Tommy Robredo turned pro 16 years ago yet was here bidding to reach the fourth round at Wimbledon for the first time in 13 appearances. Should he do so, he would record three consecutive match-wins on grass for the first time since 2004. His chances, in truth, did not look wonderful for he faced that same Janowicz who broke Kubot’s run last year. What’s more, Robredo was giving away more than nine years and nine inches in height against a Pole with some impressive all-court grass court skills.

It began to look, by late afternoon in SW19, as though none of these matches would even make it to court on the first day to be decimated by rain.

So it would be down to Wimbledon’s old hands to do their stuff under the roof of Centre Court. The fourth 32-year-old of the quartet, Roger Federer, would not take to court until later, so it was a veteran of the tennis tour even if not quite a veteran in years, who provided the sole entertainment for the afternoon crowd.

Veteran of tennis because 28-year-old Rafael Nadal has been a pro for 13 years, owns 64 titles, has just won his 14th Major, a record eighth French Open, and had already passed the 700 mark in match-wins in beating Martin Klizan in the first round this week.

He was under pressure, though, having won just one match in his last two visits to The Championships, and had lost the first set in both rounds so far.

He would find himself behind in this third-round match, too, against the free-hitting Mikhail Kukushkin, who exploded into the match with the kind of flat, angled pace that Nadal has sometimes struggled to contain.

The No63-ranked man from Kazakhstan also showed fine use of slice to keep the ball low, and Nadal could not get his big offensive forehand into a rhythm.

Both men, though, were playing well, with few errors on either side and plenty of winners, but Kukushkin found a rich vein of success with his off-forehand to the wide Nadal forehand and notched up 17 winners. His tactics also won him the tie-break and the first set, and Nadal beat a hasty retreat for a comfort break.

The world No1 returned with more aggression—he now bristled with urgency—and was soon back in his usual zone, despite an awkward slip. Despite some continued fine hitting from Kukushkin, he could not fend off four deuces and two break points in the third game, and a massive return of serve from Nadal brought the break. Nadal would not lose another game in the set, making 10 winners to just two errors: 6-1.

I’m very happy to be in the second week again after two years of losing in the first and second round

Rafael Nadal

And so it went on. Already it felt as though the writing was on the wall as Nadal played with increasing urgency and Kukushkin with diminishing pace. The Spaniard broke straight away in the third set, and twice more, to take it 6-1, and although he faced a break point in the second game of the fourth set, he would hold off the challenge to break again, and served out the match, 6-1, with his signature off-forehand.

In he end, it had been hugely impressive from Nadal. He hit 41 winners to just 12 errors and made 13 points of his 14 plays at the net.

He goes on to play one of those former junior No1s, Kyrgios or Vesely, though whether they would play at all on this wet Saturday still looked doubtful.

But as is often the case with Nadal, who is always faced with the difficult transition to grass so soon after his winning French run, he may start slowly, but he gains in confidence and effectiveness as Wimbledon goes on.

“I’ve finished all the matches playing better than when I started; that’s very positive. I’m very happy to be in the second week again after two years of losing in the first and second round.”

He went on: “I am playing well. I would be lying if I say another thing. I think I am playing well. But the surface is open opportunity to everybody because the matches can be very close… I played aggressive, I had great movements… then when I had chances with the forehand, I was able to play aggressive. That’s what I did.”

Federer would later take to court against Colombian Santiago Giraldo, and would be favoured to sail through with the same ease as he had in his first two matches.

He may almost have come unstuck against a Colombian here once before—he was two sets and a break down against Alejandro Falla in the first round in 2010—but it seemed unlikely that the most successful player of the Open era on grass would suffer such a scare this time.

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