Commentary

The reality for Nadal and Federer

Moving forward, two most prolific players today have a lot to prove at Wimbledon

Updated: June 24, 2014, 7:28 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

LONDON -- The ball was struck surprisingly deep, within inches of Roger Federer's white shoes along the Court No. 1 left baseline, but the resourceful Swiss player adjusted and cracked a crisp half-volley back at Paolo Lorenzi.

Even as he followed through, Federer began sprinting back to the right side and, sure enough, Lorenzi's reply carried him into the doubles alley, where he nailed a running forehand down the line for a clean winner.

Although Federer was still in play, Rafael Nadal was out on Centre Court trading furious forehands -- treading water, actually -- with Martin Klizan.

[+] EnlargeRafael Nadal
Carl Court/Getty ImagesRafael Nadal, who had lost seven straight sets on grass, finally found his groove.

Back in the day, they owned this place.

In a span of 10 years, Federer and Nadal won nine Wimbledon titles. From 2003 to 2012 they had an iron-clad monopoly on the All England Club; for three straight years they were the only men's finalists, culminating in 2008 with one of the greatest tennis matches of all time.

Neither is the favorite here this year -- that peculiar pressure falls to No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic -- but Federer and Nadal, who have a combined 60-plus years on this planet, are still formidable despite a few recent hiccups on this living, breathing surface. Nadal was bounced in the first round at the All England Club last year by Steve Darcis -- the first time he lost in the first round of a major -- and out of the second round two years ago. Federer was a second-round casualty in 2013, falling to No. 116-ranked Sergiy Stakhovsky.

On Tuesday, they stepped onto Wimbledon's show courts and offered drastically contrasting performances.

Nadal ended a 0-for-7 set streak on grass, but struggled to beat a man ranked 50 spots below him, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3. It was his 700th ATP World Tour victory -- and his first on grass in two years.

Federer, meanwhile, was a ho-hum 6-1, 6-1, 6-3 winner over Lorenzi.

"I got the break I think in all three sets in the first return game," Federer said. "So from that standpoint, I was always up in the score. It's easier to play that way.

"I served well, returned well, also tried to come forward a bit. I could really do everything out there."

Nadal was not nearly so fortunate.

In fairness, Klizan, a 24-year-old Slovakian, was a tricky first-round opponent. He stunned No. 10-ranked Kei Nishikori in the first round at Roland Garros, then won back-to-back matches on grass for the first time in his career in advancing to the quarterfinals at Eastbourne.

"Always, the first is so dangerous," Nadal said afterward. "Just happy to be through. I really know that is impossible to play my best in the first round today. My goal was just to win."

The King of Clay has won 66 of 67 matches at Roland Garros, producing an unparalleled record of nine French Open titles. But that effort, particularly in recent years, has cost Nadal dearly. After reaching the Wimbledon final five times in five appearances from 2006 to 2011, he has had some traumatic transition issues with grass.

On Thursday, in a delightful twist of symmetry, Nadal will play the man who beat him here in the 2012 second round: Lukas Rosol.

"He's a very dangerous player," Nadal said, "very powerful from the baseline. I will have to play my best to beat him. The important thing is to fight and play with the right attitude."

Entering Tuesday's first-round match, Nadal was working on an 0-for-3 streak on the green stuff, including his most recent loss, to Dustin Brown a few weeks ago in Halle, Germany. Nadal had won only one of five previous matches on grass.

"As the years have gone by, as he gets older, the French has taken an extraordinary amount of energy out of Rafa," Mary Carillo, the Tennis Channel and NBC tennis analyst, said before the fortnight began at Wimbledon. "You're always wondering how he's going to come out of Paris."

Although the score line might suggest otherwise, Nadal was challenged closely by Klizan in the 2-hour, 55-minute match.

If each is fortunate to win his first five matches, no small feat, Nadal and Federer would meet in the semifinals. It would be their 34th meeting (Nadal leads the series 23-10) and the 12th in a Grand Slam.

They have won 31 Grand Slam singles titles between them; Federer is first among men with 17, and Nadal (14) is tied for second with Pete Sampras.

At the age of 32, Federer is bidding to become the first man in history to win eight Wimbledon titles. Sampras and William Renshaw each has seven.

"I think [Federer's] one of the favorites in this tournament," said BBC analyst Tim Henman, who was Great Britain's hope before that guy named Murray. "On grass, given the way he moves and the offensive choices he has, I give him a good chance in this fortnight."

If he is to do it, he's going to have to move forward the way he did against Lorenzi. Federer made a conscious effort to be aggressive and won 30 of 42 points at net (71 percent). His new coach, six-time Grand Slam champion Stefan Edberg, has reinforced this idea.

"I think it could be that little extra piece to the puzzle that could bring me through, to have that extra option," Federer said. "I think also the [larger] racket is helping me to serve overall more powerful, higher percentage. I'm going to still see against who I can do it and who I can't."

Although Federer has now won some 269 Grand Slam matches, Lorenzi is 0-for-13. Going forward, it will be more difficult … to go forward.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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