WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND—Can a first-round win by the No. 1 player in the world actually be a surprise? I’m not going to go that far, but there was a serious buzz of uncertainty inside Centre Court as Rafael Nadal walked out for his opener on Tuesday against Martin Klizan. That buzz turned ominous a few minutes later, when Klizan, a free-swinging lefty ranked No. 51, thundered his first service return of the match past Nadal and into the tarp for a ringing winner. The full house roared, not with surprise, but with anticipation for the possible upset to come.
Nadal, as most of the audience surely knew, had lost in the first round here in 2013, and the second round in 2012. In fact, he had lost six consecutive sets on grass and had spent only a handful of hours competing on the surface in the last three years. By the end of the first set, it looked like Rafa’s grass future was going to have to wait another 12 months. Down break point at 4-4, he hit a second serve that clanked off the frame and landed in front of the net. The audience gasped as if it had just witnessed a man being hit by a bus.
Was Nadal about to get run over again, as he had by the even-lesser-known Lukas Rosol and Steve Darcis the last two years?
“When you go on court and you lost last year in the first round, the year before in the first round,” Nadal said later, “I don’t lie to nobody, sure it stays in your mind.”
Nadal, as we know, and as he said again today, “fights in every moment.” But when he fell behind this time, he went beyond his competitive norm into what could be called his all-in mode, or his desperation mode, or his forget-the-circumstances-I’m-going-to-win-anyway mode. Or, in this case, his I-still-want-Wimbledon-in-my-life mode. Even after he won a point, there was a look of fear on his face.
The turnaround began at 1-1 in the second set, when Nadal saved two break points, and continued at 2-3 when he broke Klizan for the first time. The tenor of the match changed after that. Nadal will typically say that he becomes more aggressive once he feels that he’s hitting the ball well. Today it seemed to me that he went in reverse—he was determined to be aggressive whether he was hitting the ball well or not. This time the will came first, and the shots followed.
“When I’m playing on clay,” Nadal said, “I don’t have to think a lot about what I have to do when I am in semifinals of Roland Garros, because I have all the things come together and automatic, no?"
“Here, you know, you need to adjust the movement," he continued. "You need to adjust the rhythm. You need to find the right feeling on the speed of the ball. You need to find the right places to serve because the serve is so important. So all the things that you need to keep doing—and in the beginning things are not going that easy—after a few matches you are able to win and play with the right tactic.”
Nadal described this match as a “restart” on grass. You could see him finding his footing gingerly, and thinking through how he needed to serve. After Klizan smacked that first, 80-M.P.H. second serve past him, Rafa upped his second-serve speed and mostly kept his first-serve percentage high. But he did get up to 126 M.P.H. a few times, and mixed his locations well. He was also an impressively efficient 17 of 23 at net.
There were still nervous moments from Rafa over the last three sets, and he never really shook himself loose from Klizan. Nadal was broken twice with the lead, and he had to save a break point in the final game with a hooking wide serve. But Rafa did shake the uncertainty that has plagued him for so long on this surface. Over the last two sets, he fell twice and recovered to win points, first by hammering a backhand pass, then by throwing up a perfectly measured backhand lob. Now that's grass-court tennis.
“In the end the match was difficult,” Nadal said. “So I was able to fight...I think can do it better than what I did today, but at the same time I will not play perfect today after not playing in grass for a while. You need to find the confidence on some shots....The only way is play matches.”
First comes the fight, then comes the feel.
Near the end of his presser, Rafa went off on an interesting tangent about surface speeds, one that also revealed something of his tennis philosophy, and perhaps his philosophy for this fortnight.
“The problem with the players is always the same,” he said when he was asked whether the grass was too fast or too slow. “If I am playing very well, I see the grass slow. If I am playing bad, I see the grass very quick. That is the same for me and the rest of the players.”
“You arrive, for example, to a tournament in Montreal that is playing very fast. I remember 2005 I was there. I had an unbelievable feeling, I was playing great before I arrive to the tournament. I arrive to the locker room, everybody was saying the court was playing that fast. I didn’t feel the court was that fast. It’s always about the personal feeling of the people.”
To Rafa, winning or losing at Wimbledon isn’t about what's under your feet. It’s about what's in your mind.
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