Second-seeded Rafael Nadal overcame a shaky start to cruise into the fourth round at Wimbledon with a 6-7(4), 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 win over Kazakhstan's Mikhail Kukushkin Saturday.
The Spanish superstar looked like he would be in for a battle after dropping a first-set tiebreak, but he was able to turn the match into a virtual blowout by the end.
Wimbledon hasn't been kind to Nadal recently, but this win puts him through to the fourth round at All England Club for the first time in three years, according to Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times:
Rafael Nadal through to second week of #Wimbledon for first time since 2011, beating Kukushkin 6-7, 6-1, 6-1, 6-1. Vesely or Kyrgios next.— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) June 28, 2014
Nadal was tested mightily in the second round by Lukas Rosol, who upset him at Wimbledon in 2012. Rafa was able to overcome the hard-hitting Czech in four sets, though, and seemed to have plenty of confidence after clearing that hurdle, per ATPWorldTour.com.
Every match is so difficult here. Especially when you play against players that really decide to play every shot (at) full power. I played a bad game in the 4-4 and I lost the first set. I think until that moment I was playing better than him, but didn't have my chances on the return because he was serving well. (I am) very happy. It is a very important victory for me. ... I finished the match playing at a very high level.
That confidence eventually manifested itself, although it took some time before Nadal took control of Saturday's match and put away Kukushkin.
With rain coming down for much of the day in London, Nadal and Kukushkin had to play under the roof on Centre Court. A controlled environment always favors power players, which is why Carole Bouchard of L'Equipe expected Kukushkin to be a challenging opponent for Rafa:
Not ideal for Nadal to play a guy like Kukushkin - who can hit big and is aggressive - in indoor conditions.— Carole Bouchard (@carole_bouchard) June 28, 2014
Simon Cambers of The Tennis Space disagreed, though, and figured Nadal would be able to breeze into the fourth round with relative ease:
Mikhail Kukushkin is a solid player but doubt he has the weapons to really test Rafael Nadal too much today (providing Rafa plays well)— Simon Cambers (@scambers73) June 28, 2014
In addition to that, Rothenberg believed the condition of the court would lend itself to Nadal's style of play in the third round and beyond:
Now that he's survived to Day 6, when grass is almost totally gone from baseline, Nadal should be his 2006-2011 Wimbledon self. #Wimbledon— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) June 28, 2014
As expected, all of the stats were in Nadal's favor as well entering the match, according to BBC Tennis:
The first set between Nadal and Kukushkin was a war of attrition as both men were serving with great efficiency. Neither player had so much as a break point opportunity, so it was inevitable that the opener would be decided in a tiebreak.
Rafa seemed to have the advantage as Kukushkin couldn't get anything going whatsoever against his serve leading up to the tiebreak, per By-The-Min Tennis:
Third consecutive love-hold for Nadal, six Rafa service games and just four points won by Kukushkin, it's tie-break time.— ByTheMin Tennis (@ByTheMinTennis) June 28, 2014
That was thrown out the window during the tiebreak, though, as Kukushkin was able to win a couple crucial points on Nadal's serve. In fact, Kukushkin was fairly dominant in taking the tiebreak with Rafa mustering just four points.
Nadal's first-set loss continued a disturbing trend that has plagued him throughout the first three rounds at Wimbledon this year, according to Douglas Robson of USA Today:
Nadal drops opening set for third consecutive time, this one 6-7(4) vs. Kukushkin. #wimbledon— Douglas Robson (@dougrobson) June 28, 2014
Despite Kukushkin's extremely impressive showing in the first set, there was plenty of skepticism regarding his ability to keep it going. Among those who expected Nadal to mount a comeback was Matt Cronin of Tennis.com:
Kukushkin very impressive against Nadal, wins first 76. Kukushkin cracking balls & aggressive. But winning 3 sets vs Rafa? Nope— Matt Cronin (@TennisReporters) June 28, 2014
Christopher Clarey of The New York Times agreed due to Nadal's innate ability to handle adversity like no other player:
Nadal was unable to truly push Kukushkin on serve during the first set, but he drew first blood in the second with the first break from either player. Kukushkin held a 40-15 lead on serve with Nadal up 2-1 in the set, but Rafa battled back and ultimately secured the break on his second opportunity.
As seen in this photo courtesy of Live Tennis, Nadal was in a celebratory mood after the momentum shift:
Nadal turning the screw now with a 3-1 lead - seems quite happy about that pic.twitter.com/ft6n9Z2C7L— Live Tennis (@livetennis) June 28, 2014
Nadal consolidated that break with a hard-fought hold and managed to take a commanding 4-1 lead as he looked to level the match. Things seemed to snowball in a positive manner for Nadal after cracking the seal on the first break as he quickly picked up another and ultimately put the second set away at 6-1 with a big-time ace.
With the floodgates officially opened, Nadal continued to impose his will early in the third set. Rafa broke Kukushkin right off the bat and consolidated with a routine hold to ensure that his Kazakh opponent couldn't regain his previous confidence.
Kukushkin did manage to stop the bleeding a bit with a hold to make it 2-1, but Nadal continued to roll after that with another hold of his own. While Nadal had taken full control of the match at that point, Craig O'Shannessy of The New York Times didn't place any blame at Kukushkin's feet:
There are very few players in the world who can compete with Nadal when he is in top form and there is no doubt that Rafa reached that level after an uneven first set. Rafa once again made quick work of Kukushkin in the third with his second consecutive 6-1 set.
With that, a Nadal victory was a mere formality.
He continued to cruise in the fourth, which prompted former tennis star Pat Cash to heap high praise on the 14-time Grand Slam winner, according to BBC's David Law:
The fourth set was essentially a carbon copy of the second and third as Kukushkin was unable to muster anything other than a single hold of serve. There was simply nothing that Kukushkin could do with Rafa in complete control and elite form.
How will Nadal fare at Wimbledon 2014?
Nadal was once again able to overcome his bad habit of dropping the first set, but he can't afford to continue falling behind in the coming rounds. After a fourth round encounter with either Nick Kyrgios or Jiri Vesely, the competition will heat up in a big way for the Spaniard.
A run of Milos Raonic, Roger Federer and then either Novak Djokovic or defending Wimbledon champion Andy Murray is possible. All of those players have the tools necessary to beat Nadal, particularly if he spots them a set.
Nadal needs to channel what he did in the final three sets against Kukushkin and bring that style of play to the start of every match moving forward. If Rafa is able to do that, then there is no question that he is a major threat to win his third Wimbledon title.
Rafa has avoided the early-round exits that have ousted him over the past couple years at All England Club, so the other top players are certainly well aware of the danger he presents.
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