You might think that, if you’re 6’6”, and you have a nasty left-handed serve, and you’re facing Rafael Nadal on a grass court, you wouldn’t come out and try to win long rallies from the baseline. But that’s what Jiri Vesely appeared determined to do in the early going of his fourth-round match at Wimbledon on Monday. It didn’t work.
Instead, Vesely allowed Nadal to settle in, find a ground-stroke groove, and quickly begin to dictate the points himself. Rafa moved back to return serve, but after that he did his best to stand close to the baseline and control the middle of the court. The result was his most efficiently aggressive tennis of the tournament. While he gave up three inches to Vesely, Nadal hit more aces (nine to eight), won a much higher percentage of points on his first serve (78 to 58), hit 19 more winners (37 to 18), and committed just 12 unforced errors.
Unlike his rival Roger Federer earlier in the day, though, Nadal experienced a third-set hiccup. At 2-2, he missed two forehands and was broken. Last year he lost in the fourth round to another heavy-serving lefty, Gilles Muller. Could Vesely dig in and give him the same kind of trouble?
WATCH: Match point from Nadal's win over Vesely at Wimbledon:
The answer—no—came in the next game, when Vesely missed two drop shots and handed the break of serve back. Nadal said afterward that it was key for him to get that break back quickly, and not allow Vesely to keep his lead and build any confidence from it.
Afterward, Nadal noted that he hadn’t reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon since 2011. He made it there today by using his serve intelligently, and by hitting his forehand well; his crosscourt shot, in particular, has its old curve and bite back, the same curve and bite he once used to give Federer fits on Centre Court. Nadal’s backhand, if anything, is more reliable than it was when he was reaching finals here a decade ago.
Twelve months ago, when he lost in the fourth round, a disappointed Nadal said he thought he’d been ready “to do important things” at Wimbledon again. Did his self-assessment come one year too soon? In his next three rounds, Rafa could face Juan Martin Del Potro, Novak Djokovic and Federer. Those sound like important things to me.
Strokes of Genius is a world-class documentary capturing the historic 13-year rivalry between tennis icons Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It is timed for release as the anticipation crests with Roger as returning champion, 10 years after their famed 2008 Wimbledon championship – an epic match so close and so reflective of their competitive balance that, in the end, the true winner was the sport itself.