Rafa returns favor in reunion
LONDON -- He was coming off yet another title at Roland Garros and had been to five Wimbledon finals in as many appearances, winning twice.
Rafael Nadal was ranked No. 2 two years ago when he encountered a nondescript player from the Czech Republic in Wimbledon's second round. His name was Lukas Rosol. In the swift span of 198 minutes, the world No. 100 briefly became something of a household name.
He blasted 22 aces and stunned Nadal in five sets, winning exactly two more points than the dogged Spaniard in one of the greatest upsets in tournament history.
"I'm sorry for Rafa," Rosol said after his signature win, "but today I was somewhere else."
He wasn't the only one. Nadal, who was clearly out of sorts, was philosophical.
"Is not a tragedy," he said. "Is only a tennis match."
A weary Rafa said he was heading home to Mallorca for "rest I need and deserve."
Nursing a serious left knee injury, he didn't play a tennis match for seven months. We now know that there was life after that sudden death. Rafa and his knees are just fine.
One of the sport's great charms is the tasty reunions it consistently offers up, and Thursday featured a retro classic between the 6-foot-1 Nadal and the 6-5 Rosol, both aged 28. And then Rosol won the first set and had a set point in the second-set tiebreaker.
Lightning never strikes twice in the same place, right? It's a scientific fact. Right?
Nadal managed to prevail 4-6, 7-6 (6), 6-4, 6-4, and after he converted his third match point he reared back, on his toes with fists clenched at his sides, and screamed, perhaps more out of relief than joy.
The stage play ran 2 hours, 44 minutes, but it felt a lot longer.
"Just try to keep fighting, to wait for my moment, find my moment," Nadal said afterward, when asked what he was thinking when contemplating that enormous hole. "I saved set point in the tiebreak, [which] was very important. If not, a player like Rosol, big server, two sets down is big, big danger."
In an interview with the BBC that aired before the match, Rosol smiled as he watched a replay of the 2012 match. He almost sounded confident.
"It's possible," he said of another victory. "It's a sport. Until the last point, the game is open. After this match [in '12], I know I can play with any player. When my game is working I am difficult to play.
"I start to understand more that every player can play with the top three, top five. Before, I'm thinking, 'Don't lose with a zero, zero, one.' Now, I think I can win. I know I can win."
And that's pretty much how the match began. With Pippa Middleton watching from the royal box, Rosol crowded Nadal, made him uncomfortable. As the set grew to fruition, Rosol grew more confident; he started hitting rhythmic winners and his serve strengthened. With Nadal serving at 4-all, Rosol converted his third break-point opportunity when Nadal hit an awkward forehand into the net. Rosol closed the set out at love.
Rosol was asked earlier by the BBC if he feared Nadal.
"Why should I fear?" he answered. "I have nothing to lose. He can fear."
In truth, a look of anxiety began to creep into Nadal's eyes when he was broken in the fifth game of the second set. The tiebreaker was a stress-fest. Serving at 5-6, Rafa saved a set point with a gorgeous, hooking serve outside, followed by a forehand winner to the other side. Another backhand error by Rosol and his double fault gave Nadal the set and suggested that Rosol was actually present for this contest.
When Nadal broke Rosol in the third game of the third set, you sensed the minds of both men had changed appreciably. Nadal, champion that he is, was simply stronger going forward. Rosol's backhand broke down, and so, too, his resolve.
"Every match is different," Nadal said. "Today was another match [where] trying to win is my goal, not to beat Rosol. I want to play as good as possible in the tournament. [Revenge] doesn't matter for me."
After losing to Rosol two years ago, Nadal missed two consecutive Grand Slams for the first time in seven years -- when he was 18 years old and suffered a fractured ankle. Suddenly, he has won three of the past five majors. Perhaps Nadal should thank Rosol for that wake-up call.
Before the match, Toni Nadal, Rafa's coach since he was 4 years old, sounded optimistic.
"I know [Rosol is] a very difficult player on grass," he told the BBC. "But this year Rafael is better than two years ago. Two years ago, we have many problems in his knees. This year is different, our attitude is so much better, his movement is so much better.
"I hope everything is better. We try to win this game. I hope we can play more time here."
He was laughing when he said it, but he was as demonstrative during the match as he has been in recent memory.
And so, Nadal is into the third round, his best Wimbledon effort in three years. Now that he's navigated the tricky transition from clay to grass, his confidence is likely to grow as he goes forward.