Rafael Nadal notches up win No850 in his 50th Wimbledon match to keep No1 hopes alive
The French Open champion beats Australia's John Millman to secure his 850th career win on day one of Wimbledon
Two-time Wimbledon champion Rafael Nadal was asked ahead of his campaign this year about finding motivation when he has not made it to the quarter-finals at the All England Club since he was runner-up here in 2011.
After all, in the interim, he had notched up a title run at the US Open, made three runners-up runs in Australia, and won four titles at Roland Garros.
Yet what the Spaniard has never lacked, through years of injury problems, is motivation. His reply was simple:
“My motivation is always high in all the events that I play. If not, I am not playing. You can imagine always playing here in Wimbledon for me has been very, very special. Was one of the biggest goals that I have when I start to have success in this sport, to play well in this tournament. I did five times.”
And indeed, there are not many men who can claim to have reached the final here five time and win that golden trophy twice, especially in an era where he has tracked his biggest rival, Roger Federer, to the top of the rankings and into the finals of multiple Grand Slam finals. At Wimbledon more than anywhere else, Federer has led the way: seven titles from 10 finals.
So when Nadal was asked for his best memory of Wimbledon, the reference to that friend/rival was foremost:
“For me that is easy (smiling): 2008.”
That marked the year, after two straight final losses to Federer in the final, that Nadal won the title in what many still regard as one of the best matches ever played at the All England Club.
So while the Spaniard may have found the surface far less suited to his game than his beloved clay, and may have arrived year after year more exhausted than any other player because he had become almost unbeatable on that same clay, motivation—and love for Wimbledon—has never waned.
As he went on:
“I am excited to be playing again here, in a tournament that I really love. I really enjoy playing.”
But if Nadal should need any additional motivation, he could find it here in buckets. He was about to play both his 50th match at Wimbledon and his 50th match of 2017, and aiming to record his 850th match-win. And if all that was not enough, he could regain the No1 ranking if he reached the final in two weeks’ time—three years after he last topped the pile.
The signs for the Spaniard have certainly been encouraging. After missing so much of the last season with a wrist injury, and before that in 2014, suffering back problems and an appendectomy, his form this year has been on a steady upward trajectory. The final of the Australian Open, Acapulco and the Miami Masters preluded an extraordinary clay season: a 10th Monte-Carlo Masters, 10th title in Barcelona, fifth Madrid Masters, and then to cap it all, a 10th French Open.
Little wonder that he withdrew from Queen’s, his only planned grass court preparation, to recover in Mallorca, a decision surely helped by the fine grass courts his home island now possesses for its new WTA tournament.
Yet arguably, he was coming into Wimbledon this year in his best shape in a long while, and the style of his match against the 137th ranked John Millman suggested that both his confidence and energy levels were high. He broke immediately, broke again, came through a tough hold, and broke once more for a 32-minute set, 6-1.
In the second set, Millman made more inroads, getting a break along the way, but still Nadal had control with aggressive tennis and impressive serving. He broke twice, and served out the set 6-3.
Nadal looked to have the match sewn up in the third with a 4-0 lead, but Millman again snatched a break back, leaving the Spaniard to serve out the match in style to love with back-to-back forehand winners, his 16th and 17th off that wing in the match, 6-2.
This, then, was Nadal’s first match-win on grass since his second-round loss here to Dustin Brown two years ago. He admitted:
“I am happy because I didn’t win a lot of matches the last couple of years here in Wimbledon. Today I win one, and I am looking forward to playing the second one.”
But Nadal is rarely one to overstate his own game, and came through in a moderate assessment of his performance:
“I don’t know. Was a very positive match for me, a good start. That doesn’t mean a lot. The only thing that means is that today was a very positive start. I am through to the second round.
“I always expect to go on court and compete well, try my best. Things sometimes go better, and things sometimes go worse.”
What he did pick up was that his forehand had performed well—though it truth, that was hard to avoid:
“I finished the match hitting some great forehands, no? That’s the way. I need to play aggressive with my forehand. Obviously, I need to serve well. That’s the only way that I can have chances of a good result here.”
He next plays Donald Young, who beat Denis Istomin at two sets and a break up by retirement.
Also in this section, 21-year-old Karen Khachanov proved the worth of his first Major seeding, at No30, with a hard-fought win over Andrey Kuznetsov, 7-6, 2-6, 6-3, 1-6, 6-2.
Possible quarter-final opponents for Nadal also kept their form with straight-sets wins. No9 seed Kei Nishikori completed a 72-minute rout of Marco Cecchinato. He next plays Sergiy Stakhovsky. And No7 seed Marin Cilic beat Philipp Kohlschreiber, 6-4, 6-2, 6-3, to set a second-round meeting with Florian Mayer, who beat Viktor Troicki via retirement after one set.