Rafael Nadal opened his 2012 Wimbledon campaign with an uncharacteristically meek and error-prone performance on Centre Court this afternoon, but still did more than enough to subdue Thomaz Bellucci, 7-6 (0), 6-2, 6-3.
We’ve all seen Bellucci put in impressive performances against higher-ranked opponents, and we’ve all seen Nadal stamp out determined opposition in early-round matches, but this was an example of neither. Bellucci, whose best result at Wimbledon came when he reached the third round in 2010, made a glorious start as he passed Nadal to break for 2-0, then broke again with a pair of forehand winners for 4-0. Bellucci’s huge forehand was in fine working order, whereas Nadal’s was leaking.
But serving at 4-0 with his opponent on the ropes, Bellucci murdered two very makeable backhand volleys and put a routine forehand long to give one break back. Nadal held with a beautifully-measured lob and an ace, and the momentum was swinging steadily back in his favor. Making quick tactical adjustments after his disastrous start, Nadal stopped serving to his opponent’s forehand and started slicing repeatedly to it, drawing errors from the tall Brazilian and recovering the second break for 3-4 when Bellucci put a third volley into the net. Bellucci managed to keep his serve and get to a tiebreak, but quickly fell behind when one of Nadal’s tricky, mid-court, no-pace slices elicited another forehand error. From there, it was error after error—including a smash into the net—as Bellucci quickly lost the tiebreak in shutout fashion.
Bellucci rebounded well, landing a gorgeous forehand volley for a break point with Nadal serving at 1-1 in the second, but the former champion saved it with an ace out wide. Bellucci quickly returned to ‘form’ by missing another makeable volley on a big point to go break point down. Nadal broke for 4-2 after Bellucci missed a routine backhand, then played his most aggressive return game of the match to break for his best set of the match. Rafa served at 71 percent in set two, getting returns in play on 82 percent of Bellucci’s service points, and hitting 12 winners to just four unforced errors.
All the signs were that Nadal was accelerating towards a quick victory, and he broke quickly for 2-0 in the third, but he then played his poorest game since the first set to be broken back. Nadal found his forehand again to break for 4-2, then served out the match, ending with his sixth ace of the day. A patchy performance in an early round is not too surprising from Nadal, and one would expect his timing on the ball—and especially the depth and aggression of his returning—to improve substantially as he works his way through the first week.