WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND—Through much the first set of Rafael Nadal’s 6-7 (4), 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 win over Mikhail Kukushkin on Saturday, coach and commentator Brad Gilbert kept telling us that everything would be different once Nadal broke serve. His early nerves would vanish, his defensive play would turn offensive, and his opponent, who was lasering the corners, would begin to misfire.
And that’s exactly how it went. Nadal’s third-round win came in two eras: BB and AB. There was before the break, and after.
Before the break, Kukushkin, like Nadal’s previous two opponents, Martin Klizan and Lukas Rosol, was slapping flat winners with the freedom of a man with nothing to lose and a couple of hours to enjoy himself on Centre Court. He pushed Nadal back, ran him side to side, and took advantage of some weak Nadal serving to sneak through 7-4 in the tiebreaker. Up 1-0 in the second set, Kukushkin, just as Klizan had, threatened to break serve. At 15-30, though, Nadal finally found the right length on his forehand for a down-the-line winner and went on to hold. No one knew it then, but the first era of this match was at an end.
Nadal has talked this week about having to “restart” on grass, to adjust his game to it again after virtually three years away. He has done that with his serve, which has become more of a weapon this week than it has been all year. Rafa had nine aces today, and seemed to have a little extra bend on his slice up the middle (though perhaps that was for the benefit of David Beckham, who was watching from the Royal Box today).
In this match, you could also see Nadal adjusting his return game. He moved forward and took the ball earlier, and it paid off at 2-1 in the second. In the middle of the game, from the ad side, Rafa stepped in and drove the ball for his first winning backhand return. The shot seemed to free him up. Nadal did the same thing a few minutes later at break point. The After Break era had begun.
Jailbreak might be the better term—Nadal ran wild from then on. He would lose just two more games, and he had break points in both of them. Behind by seven in the winner count to Kukushkin after the first set, he finished up by nine, with 41. He played with freedom and aggression, but also accuracy; Rafa finished with just 12 errors. That count is probably skewed low by Wimbledon’s scorers, but Nadal himself said afterward that he was happy to “play with very few mistakes.” For good measure, he added a clip to his personal highlight reel at 4-1 in the third set, when he backpedaled furiously into the alley on his forehand side and launched a surface-to-surface inside-out forehand missile for a winner.
Best, though, was Rafa’s backhand. After that return winner early in the second, he began to lean in and flatten it out with depth and aggression. This may have been the best he’s hit his backhand this season, and it reminded me of the way he cracked it during his first championship run here in 2008. No wonder Kuku spent the fourth set with a thousand-year stare on his face—he’d been pummeled from all sides.
The worrying news for Nadal, who will play the winner between two up-and-comers, Nick Kyrgios and Jiri Vesely, is that he’s lost the first set in each of his three matches here (as well as two of his last three at the French Open). How many times can he force himself to come up with the goods under pressure? The better news is that in each of the last two matches, Rafa has worked himself back into something close to his top form—if nothing else, he’s getting his grass-court practice in. The best news for Nadal may be that in each of the five previous times he’s reached the second week at Wimbledon, he’s gone on either to make the final or win the tournament. He’s in the second week again.