There is a menace, a swagger and a steely determination to Rafael Nadal this week at The Championships. Right from the moment he straps up his feet, puts on his socks and shoes, tapes up his fingers and ties the knot in his white bandana to walk out onto one of the show courts at the All England Club. The great Spanish champion is determined to do well, six years on from reaching the last of his five Wimbledon title matches (2006-08, 2010-11).
For the first two sets on Centre Court, scene of his famous 2008 triumph (d. Federer) and 2010 crown (d. Berdych), Nadal was often at his awesome best Friday, a perennial threat to Karen Khachanov, largely nullifying the game of the #NextGenATP No. 30 seed, in front of a capacity crowd. Khachanov responded, highlighting his service and forehand power, in a closely fought third set, but Nadal eventually triumphed 6-1, 6-4, 7-6(3) in two hours and 15 minutes for a place in the fourth round.
“For a set and a half I was playing fantastic, then a little bit worse,” said Nadal. “But in general terms, it went very well and I’m very happy. At the beginning of the third set, I had my chances. I should have got the break. It didn’t happen. Then, I had two tough games on my serve. That’s it. I think I played well in the important moments. In the tie-break, I think I played a little bit better than him.
“It is always better when the sun is out there. The conditions become a little bit more drier, and the court is more firm. It’s better obviously for me. It’s always good to be in the second week. I hope the weather continues like this.”
Nadal surged to a 4-0 lead for the loss of four points and held break points in all five of Khachanov’s first five service games. One break of serve in the second set was enough for Nadal, and while Khachanov saved one set point at 4-5, Ad-Out, the two-time former Wimbledon titlist closed out to love in the next game. Nadal lost just 11 of his service points for a two sets lead.
The third set, a far closer affair, saw Khachanov step in closer to the baseline, settle into his natural service rhythm and begin to take time away from Nadal with 23 net approaches out of a total 29 for the match. Although Khachanov was forced to save break points in the third and fifth games, in serving first he kept the pressure on Nadal with deep, heavy hitting.
At 3-4, Nadal showed great mental fortitude to produce a great escape, saving three break points, but the pressure continued to mount. A wild forehand wide of the tramline at 5-6, gifted Khachanov a set point with Nadal serving at 30/40. A drop shot winner by Nadal, highlighted his resilience. In the resulting tie-break, and fuelled by the support of the Centre Court crowd, Nadal broke clear for 2/2 with three groundstroke winners (23 overall) and he went on to complete an ATP World Tour-best 47th match win of the season.
Nadal, who has now won a Grand Slam championship match in straight sets for the 10th time in a row, will add to his 141 weeks at No. 1 in the Emirates ATP Rankings if he reaches a sixth final at The Championships. He could potentially face the current No. 1 Andy Murray, the two-time Wimbledon champion, in the semi-finals.
Fourth seed Nadal will now meet Gilles Muller, the No. 16 seed and no slouch on a grass-court. Muller will serve-volley and test the Spaniard’s grass-court credentials – having won the Ricoh Open title (d. Karlovic) and reached Aegon Championships semi-finals (l. to Cilic) in recent weeks. The 31-year-old Nadal has won 73 career titles, including four in 2017.
“He’s one of the toughest opponents possible on this surface, especially,” said Nadal. “Probably this is his best surface, without a doubt. He has a great serve and a great volley. He plays well from the baseline here. He’s a tough, tough opponent. At the same time we are in the Round of 16. You cannot expect to have an easy opponent. So he’s a very tough one, because he had played a lot on grass this year… All the matches are difficult. Let’s see if I am able to keep playing well.”
Earlier in the day, Muller hit 19 aces – for a tournament leading 72 aces in three matches – to knock out Briton Aljaz Bedene 7-6(4), 7-5, 6-4 in two hours and 27 minutes.
“Every time I give my best till the end,” said Bedene. “Unfortunately, it didn’t work out today. I wasn’t playing my best tennis. He’s playing a little bit different, a unique style with his lefty good serve, great slice. I just didn’t find my rhythm today. It wasn’t easy.”