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Rafael Nadal into last 16 after another slow start

by Ron Atkin
Saturday 28 June 2014

Following two years of failure at Wimbledon Rafael Nadal is into the second week of the 2014 Championships. As someone who likes order and tidiness in his life and career, the No.2 seed will have been pleased that he came though his third round match exactly as he had done in the first two, winning in flamboyant style after dropping the first set.

This time the victim was the Russian-born but Kazakhstan-based Mikhail Kukushkin, who played superbly to take the opening set tie-break, only to be hustled to defeat 6-7(4), 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 in two hours 34 minutes on a Centre Court with the roof closed against inclement weather.

Twice a Wimbledon champion and three times the runner-up, Nadal is clearly embarked on a return to those happier times after the disasters in the first round last year and second round in 2012 and he is certainly climbing towards the sort of form which annexed the French Open crown for a record ninth time earlier this month and sees him sitting atop the world rankings, despite being seeded second here because of that recent indifferent grass court record.

However, in each of his three rounds so far Nadal’s opponents have been keen to exploit any vulnerability. It may be that they uncovered one, only to discover that when it comes to the long haul Rafa is one of the fittest and most determined athletes on the planet, and going one set behind has been very much a red rag to this Spanish bull. So it was for Kukushkin whose level was astonishing in that opening set.

Probably astonishing to him, too, since exactly a year ago he was down at 324 in the rankings following double hip surgery. Now he is up to 63 but had never won a match at Wimbledon until this week.

He is unusual among the tennis fraternity in that his coach is his wife, Anastasia. As Tim Henman said before this match went on court, “For me, that would be a recipe for disaster but if it works for him, great.” It certainly worked great for him in that first set, with Mrs Kukushkin looking on proudly.

Perhaps it didn’t help Nadal’s confidence that, playing under the Centre Court roof for only the second time, he slipped and fell on the very first point and thereafter was fully occupied in attempting to keep the rampant Kukushkin at bay. Playing excellent, bravura tennis he had Nadal scampering around to counter this aggression. As Nadal readily conceded afterwards, “He played fantastic. I thought if he played like that for three sets I will be in trouble.”

Although his own serve had perked up so well that he went into the tie-break having won 15 successive points on it, he was subsequently outplayed and strangely prone to error and found himself a set behind with just under an hour played against yet another opponent who was hitting with no fear. Kukushkin had clocked up 17 winners to Nadal’s 11 in that opening set, with five aces thrown in for good measure. “I was thinking maybe the roof here in Wimbledon is not good for me,” said Nadal with a smile.

Than, as so often in this sort of match, the underdog began to falter. The accuracy of his first serve fell away and the second serve came under increasing punishment from the relentless Rafa. From 1-1 in the second set Nadal swept seven games in succession and perhaps the key moment was the heavy fall Kukushkin suffered in the opening game of the third set. He appeared to suffer damage to knees which were already taped and the rampant Nadal simply ran away with the match.

By the time Kiukushkin briefly stopped the rot in the fourth game of the fourth set Nadal had won 14 of the previous 15 games. By now the Kukushkin forehand which had inflicted so much damage earlier had collapsed although the glorious running forehand he uncorked in the last game of the match was a reminder of the glories that had been his in the first set.
“I played aggressive, I had great movement,” was how Nadal summed up the win and the way he won.

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