A fourth-round match at Wimbledon. A strapping opponent. On the lawns of the All England Club in recent years, this has spelled danger for Rafael Nadal.
On Monday, Jiri Vesely was that opponent. Yet Nadal handled the assignment with conviction.
His 6-3 6-3 6-4 triumph sets up a possible quarterfinal showdown with fifth seed Juan Martin del Potro, should the Argentine get past Gilles Simon. Del Potro led their match by two sets to one before darkness suspended play.
Del Potro lets a ball go by him on Simon's set point (it landed in) and now the match has been suspended due to darkness. Not a fun note to sleep on. #Wimbledon
— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) July 9, 2018
Successfully navigating the fading light was Novak Djokovic, who romped to a 6-4 6-2 6-2 win over Karen Khachanov late on Monday on No.1 Court. He’ll meet Kei Nishikori, who got past ailing qualifier Ernests Gulbis in four.
In the top half of the draw, Roger Federer and a trio of tall power-servers cemented their quarterfinal berths. Federer, who brushed Adrian Mannarino aside 6-0 7-5 6-4, will face No.8 seed Kevin Anderson after the South African quelled Gael Monfils in four tight sets.
John Isner and Milos Raonic will square off in another quarterfinal; Raonic beat American Mackenzie McDonald in four sets while Isner progressed to the last eight at Wimbledon for the first time with a 6-4 7-6(8) 7-6(4) victory over 31st seed Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece.
But back to Nadal.
The Spaniard was once a force at Wimbledon, reaching the final every year from 2006 to 2011 – barring 2009, when he skipped the tournament – and won the coveted title twice.
Yet since his appearance in the 2011 decider, SW19 has not been a happy hunting ground for the 17-time major winner. He’d failed to go beyond the fourth round in five subsequent visits, and on three of those occasions was out of the tournament by the second round.
Powerful hitters, explosive athletes and relentless attackers proved his downfall each time; Lukas Rosol, Nick Kyrgios, Dustin Brown, Gilles Muller.
But against Vesely, he was never in danger.
“Of course is an important result for me, no? Is important for me to be in these quarterfinals. Is true has been a while since I have been in that position,” he said.
“But when I come here, I come here thinking that I can do a good result, no? If not, probably I will not be here. When I arrive here, my goal is to do the things the right way, to try to give me chances to compete well. Sometimes the things works better, sometimes worst.”
One hour and 53 minutes later…@RafaelNadal books his quarter-final spot
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 9, 2018
On Monday, things worked for the better. The left-handed Czech, at 198cm tall and 94kg, is the kind of player with the raw power to trouble Nadal. But apart from a few big serves, he was relatively passive from the back of the court, rarely unloading on groundstrokes and allowing Nadal to dictate.
Nadal obliged; he finished with more than twice the number of winners (37 to 18) and frequently got the less-than-nimble Vesely on the move.
Down two sets to love, Vesely gave the crowd hope for a closer contest when he broke Nadal in the fifth game for a 3-2 lead.
Yet Nadal promptly broke back – helped by two botched drop shots from Vesely – and four games later broke again to cap a dominant display.
The world No.1 – seeded second at this year’s championships – is reluctant to go into specifics about why he’s flourishing once again on the game’s grandest grass courts.
One possible explanation is the weather; unusually warm conditions this year in London have contributed to livelier, higher-bouncing courts.
But Nadal points to his health as a major factor in his return to the business end of the tournament. And a little luck.
“To be fair and honest, we have to think about the things that happened (back then). (In) 2012, 2013, I was not able to compete. Even if I played, I was not able to compete with the knees the way I had,” he said.
“(In) 2014, I played a good tournament. I lost in fourth round against a player I can lose (to), like Kyrgios that I had set points to be two sets to one up. 2015 was a very bad year for me not on grass, in most of the surfaces. It’s normal that I lost here, too. In 2016 I didn’t play because of my wrist. 2017 I played well. 2018 I am playing well.
“Is true that I have not been in that quarterfinals or in farther rounds, but I played good tennis here. I lost a couple of matches that I could win. Sometimes few points changes the final result. Is true that couple of times did that few points have not been in my side. In the past, have been in my side.”
And while Nadal enjoys a day of rest on Tuesday as his potential quarterfinal opponents slug it out for the right to play him, it seems like fortune is finally, once again, on his side at Wimbledon.
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