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Rafael Nadal's Increased Confidence Makes Him Top Threat at Wimbledon

Rafael Nadal of Spain reacts after winning a point against Mikhail Kukushkin of Kazakhstan during their men's singles match on Centre Court at the All England Lawn Tennis Championships in Wimbledon, London, Saturday, June 28, 2014. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
Ben Curtis/Associated Press
Nate LoopFeatured ColumnistJune 30, 2014

Wimbledon hasn't been friendly to Rafael Nadal in recent years, but his confident approach to the tournament combined with the nature of his early-round victories makes him a threat to win this event for the first time since 2010.

Nadal has dropped the first set in all three of his wins at Wimbledon 2014 so far, but he's been absolutely dominant finishing off his opponents. It seems he may have finally rid himself of the doubt manifested by his previous performances in London.

Lukas Rosol upset the Spaniard in the second round of Wimbledon in 2012, and he was unceremoniously dispatched by then-world No. 135-ranked Steve Darcis in the first round a year later.

Nadal spoke before the tournament about just being more confident on the grass surface, via Sports Illustrated's Courtney Nguyen:

"But then it is true for the last couple of years I didn’t play a lot of matches on grass. But I am confident that I can do it again. Not talking about [winning], talking about [playing] better than what I did last couple of years on grass," he said.

Sang Tan/Associated Press

Nadal admitted that his previous struggles weighed on him after his first-round 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 victory over Martin Klizan in this year's tournament. 

"When you go on court and you lost last year in the first round, the year before in the second round... (I'm not) going to lie... it stays in your mind," he said, via the Associated Press (h/t San Francisco Chronicle).

He was in a celebratory mood after the first match, but the second-round win over Rosol might have been even more important from a mental standpoint.

Nadal should find second-round victories unbelievably routine at this point, but this victory took on some added weight with Rosol—a living, breathing reminder of past failures—as his opponent.

USA Today's Chris Chase described how much the 4-6, 7-6 (8-6), 6-4, 6-4 victory meant to Nadal and his family:

Toni Nadal stood up during that tiebreaker, shouting direction to his nephew. When Rosol double-faulted away the set, Toni let out a loud “Vamos!,” the kind usually not heard on Centre Court until the first Sunday in July.

The Nadals wanted it. The Nadals needed it. This was only a second-round match, but it’s the kind that can be a springboard toward something greater. Mental roadblocks passed, Nadal’s draw opens up.

Nadal then put any lingering doubts to rest after his third-round win over Mikhail Kukushkin. Nadal dropped the first set 6-7 (4-7), but then came roaring back to take the next sets 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 and win the match.

Nadal's play in this last match was superlative; he didn't rush his shot and made just eight unforced errors over the final three sets. The lack of mistakes is a sign of his mental strength heading into the final rounds.

The New York Times' Ben Rothenberg noted that Nadal won't have to battle the surface as much after making it past the early rounds:

Nadal is set to play heavy underdog Nick Kyrgios in the round of 16. Kyrgios is a 19-year-old starlet who will have to play the game of his life to beat Nadal.

If Nadal makes it beyond Kyrgios, a showdown with Roger Federer looms in the semifinals. Federer's star has faded in recent tournaments, but he is one of the smoothest players in the world on grass and could challenge a younger, more athletically gifted Nadal.

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