Rafael Nadal overcame an early scare from a gamely Martin Klizan to score a four-set victory, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3, and advance to the second round of the 2014 edition of Wimbledon.
Nadal entered the tournament as a two-time champion and five-time finalist. Yet, he hasn't advanced beyond the second round at the All England Club since 2011. Losses to Steve Darcis and Lukas Rosol led to a pair of shocking early exits over the past two years.
The Spaniard attributed the losses to the surface. Dan Imhoff of the tournament's official site passed along comments from the "King of Clay," who admitted quick grass courts make it difficult for him to take charge in a match:
[Wimbledon] is really the most dangerous tournament of the year. [It] is a tournament you arrive to the first round, sometimes the match cannot be in your hands, because in the end is a surface that you don't have the time to control the match.
He was lucky to avoid falling behind early in the opening set. Klizan had four break points in Nadal's first two service games, but was unable to convert any of them.
It was the type of shaky play rarely seen from the No. 2 seed at any other major, especially the French Open, where he just picked up his fifth straight title. That suggests the recent issues at Wimbledon are as much of a mental hurdle as anything else. His past success at Wimbledon would say the same.
Of course, facing off with Klizan also represented a tough draw.
The 24-year-old Slovak was ranked just outside the top 50 coming into the season's third major. He has lacked consistency during the early portion of his career, but has also flashed some serious upside. That's certainly not an ideal opponent to start with at a tournament where Nadal has struggled recently.
Just when it seemed like the 14-time Grand Slam champion was starting to settle in, Klizan turned up the return pressure in the 4-4 game to earn a break point. This time Nadal didn't even give him a chance to squander the opportunity as he double-faulted to drop the game.
Tom Barclay of The Sun noted the second serve was a total mishit:
Nadal broken with a horrible double fault - the ball bounced on his side before it reached the net! 5-4 Klizan leads, and he deserves it— Tom Barclay (@TomBarclay_SUN) June 24, 2014
Klizan proceeded to hold serve in the next game to close out the set. He won it 6-4, but it could have easily been far more lopsided if he took advantage of those early chances. On the flip side, it was some uninspiring tennis from Nadal.
Craig O'Shannessy of the ATP World Tour pointed out a couple key moments in the final game that swung it in the underdog's favor:
Boom! Klizan 6-4 1st set. Electric atmosphere!!! Playing huge! Big BH down line at 15-30 and big to FH at 40-30 forced FH errors #wimbledon— Craig O'Shannessy (@BrainGameTennis) June 24, 2014
ESPN Tennis illustrated that Nadal has a mundane record on tennis' biggest stages when failing to capture the first set:
Upset Alert: Klizan takes 1st set 6-4 off Nadal. Keep in mind the World No.1 only has a 22-21 record in Majors when losing the 1st set.— ESPNTennis (@ESPNTennis) June 24, 2014
They traded holds for the first five games of the second set with very few looks for either player on the return. Then Nadal finally broke through for the the first time in the match to grab a 4-2 lead in the set. He proceeded to consolidate the break.
Although he wasn't playing markedly better, he was taking some extra chances that paid off. By contrast, some of the line-clipping shots Klizan connected on in the first set were no longer dropping.
Howard Bryant of ESPN praised the continued will to fight from Nadal:
Win or lose, this is my favorite part of watching Nadal: when the fighter overtakes the tennis player +he knows he must play at full abandon— Howard Bryant (@hbryant42) June 24, 2014
Klizan was able to create a couple break opportunities with the top-ranked player in the world trying to close out the set. He couldn't win either point, leaving him 1-of-10 on break chances through two sets with the only conversion coming on a Nadal double fault.
How far will Nadal advance at Wimbledon this year?
Nadal leveled the match by closing out the second set at 6-3. It marked the first set out of his last eight on grass that he won, further showcasing his problems on the surface in recent years.
By the start of the third set there was a noticeable difference in the players' energy levels. Klizan, who had taken a couple tumbles in the match, looked sluggish while Nadal was grinding away on every point as usual.
It led to an immediate break to keep momentum on the 14-time Grand Slam champion's side. He hit a terrific shot at deuce to give himself a look at the break, and Klizan helped him out with a lazy miss to drop serve.
SI.com's Beyond The Baseline highlighted Nadal's effort on the point that set up the early break:
Rafa Nadal just won a point in which he fell down, got back up, ran around some more, and then hit the most ridiculous backhand pass.— Beyond The Baseline (@SI_BTBaseline) June 24, 2014
Nadal held serve and then broke again. Just when it appeared he was getting ready to start pulling away, he played a very sloppy game to let Klizan back in the set.
He was still up a break, meaning aside from a little extra pressure to hold serve he maintained control. Klizan played better after his slow start to the third set, but was never able to get the second break back.
Nadal then closed out the third set at 6-3 with a break. Wimbledon provided a look at some tremendous play from the Spanish star late in the set:
WATCH: Nadal handles everything Klizan throws at him & finishes the point with a volley winner. He's up 2 sets to 1. http://t.co/2rvAxuimbf— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) June 24, 2014
A similar story played out in the fourth set. Nadal grabbed an early break, but to Klizan's credit he continued to play at a reasonably high level despite running low on energy. He tried to shorten the points with some heavy shots off wings.
The approach got him back into the set for a brief moment as he got back on serve with a break. He couldn't consolidate it, however, as Nadal jumped right back on top in his next return game to give himself a chance to close the match out on serve.
He did exactly that with a third straight 6-3 set. The ATP World Tour noted it was a milestone career win and he certainly had to earn it:
Looking ahead, Nadal will once again meet Rosol in the second round. As previously mentioned, the Czech veteran is one of the two players to upset Nadal at Wimbledon over the past two years. He scored a five-set win over him in the round of 64 in 2012.
If the French Open champion is going to make a charge toward his second straight major triumph, his level of play will need to improve. Surviving a tricky test against Klizan should help him rebuild some confidence on grass, but facing Rosol will be another mental battle.
Nadal is still one of the tournament's top contenders. There are plenty of questions for him to answer before potentially adding another Wimbledon title to his trophy case, though.