Rafael Nadal Victory Restores Order at Wimbledon
Before his four-set victory over Martin Klizan of Slovakia, second seed Rafael Nadal arrived on a three-match losing streak on grass, dating to his second-round loss at Wimbledon in 2012. He lost in the first round last year, to relatively unknown journeyman Steve Darcis.
It is not often that intrigue and doubt accompanies the top-ranked men's tennis player to the opening round at Wimbledon. It was as if they were stored in the racket bag that Rafael Nadal had slung over his shoulder as he entered Centre Court on Tuesday.
Nadal arrived on a three-match losing streak on grass, dating to his second-round loss at Wimbledon in 2012. He lost in the first round last year, to relatively unknown journeyman Steve Darcis.
And in his only other grass court appearance this month, Nadal lost in straight sets in the first round at Halle, Germany, to Dustin Brown. Brown is no tennis titan; currently ranked 79th in the world, he lost his first-round match at Wimbledon on Monday to veteran Marcos Baghdatis.
That recent history seemed to override a deeper, more optimistic past, the one that says Nadal is a top ranked, two-time Wimbledon champion fresh from his ninth French Open title. It turned Martin Klizan, a left-handed Slovakian, into a nothing-to-lose upset pick on Tuesday.
But Nadal, with his whipping forehand and unflappable intensity, batted the speculation back and restored normalcy. He started slowly but scuttled the doubt with an ultimately emphatic 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 victory.
The match anchored Wimbledon's second day, speckled in sunshine and clouded by few surprises. Beyond Nadal, it featured breezier opening-round victories by other members of tennis royalty, including Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova.
In some ways, the ease with which most high-ranked players have won their opening matches the first two days of the tournament has provided the biggest upset.
Nadal appeared to be in the gravest danger. Ever the showman, Nadal opened the match losing the first three points on serve, then fought back to capture the game. But he was broken later to lose the first set, attracting Wimbledon's collectively curious gaze to Centre Court.
Nadal steadied and started breaking back - four times in the next two sets to gain control of the match. He sprinkled in highlight-worthy exchanges, none better than when he slipped down to the grass, recovered to keep a long rally alive, and eventually sent a looping winner past a slowly fading Klizan.
Nadal punctuated the big points with expressions and fist pumps worthy of a later-round match.
"For the last three years, I didn't play much on grass," Nadal said in a television interview immediately after the match. "That always affects the rhythm, the confidence."
Both things seemed to be restored against Klizan, a sneakily dangerous first-round opponent. He reached the Sweet 16 at the 2012 U.S. Open, beating then-No. 6 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on the way. He beat 10th-ranked Kei Nishikori in the first round of last month's French Open. He came to Wimbledon ranked No. 51.
But Nadal, as he so often does, slowly unwound Klizan's resolve, especially with his defense. The match had one burst of late suspense when Klizan broke Nadal in the fourth set after the chair umpire docked Nadal for taking more than 20 seconds to serve. Nadal immediately broke back, then served to win.
Historically, Wimbledon has often been the most predictable of the Grand Slams. The men's side has seen dominant stretches by the likes of Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras and, more recently, Federer, who won six times from 2003 to 2009. Sisters Venus and Serena Williams have won 10 Wimbledon titles since 2000.
But last year ushered in a wave of upsets. Nadal, Federer, Serena Williams and Sharapova were among those losing before the quarterfinals. Theories were wide-ranging, focused on everything from the condition of Wimbledon's grass under a new groundskeeper to the aging of tennis' perennial champions.
So far, it appears 2013 was an aberration.
Federer, like his longtime rival Nadal, came to Wimbledon as if needing to prove something. Federer has won a record 17 Grand Slam tournaments, but none since Wimbledon in 2012, the longest drought since his first Grand Slam title in 2003, at Wimbledon.
Last year, Federer lost in the second round to No. 116 Sergiy Stakhovsky. It was Federer's earliest Grand Slam loss since the 2003 French Open, just before he began his slow and steady redraft of the record book.
These days, his every Grand Slam defeat is followed by whispers and speculation about the imminent end of his playing days, and concerns over whether his exit from the game will be gracefully executed.
But Federer, seeded fourth, arrived with a renewed sense of confidence. That is partly because of steady health and play - he won the Wimbledon tuneup in Halle, Germany, earlier this month - and partly because of questions surrounding Nadal and other favorites.
Can top-seeded Novak Djokovic, without a Grand Slam title in his past five attempts, snap back out of his runner-up ways? Can Andy Murray duplicate last year's historic run, when he became the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years?
Wimbledon has seen four different winners the past four years, and 2014 portends to be another tossup. That is where Federer enters - or re-enters - the conversation. He is vying to be the first man to win eight Wimbledon singles titles, and the oldest in the Open era.
On Tuesday, he rushed past Italy's Paolo Lorenzi, 6-1, 6-1, 6-3. Federer, playing like a much younger version of himself, sprinkled in a fair bit of serve-and-volley, an old-school strategy that he believes can give him an edge.
"I served well, returned well, also tried to come forward a bit," he said. "I could really do everything out there, so I'm very pleased with the first round."
Anything short of a romp would have been cause for concern. Lorenzi, 32, was playing his 13th Grand Slam appearance, and left still looking for his first victory.
Things were similarly simple for Sharapova, seeded fifth. When she won Wimbledon a decade ago, she seemed built for a career's worth of grass-court success. Instead, Sharapova has become a great all-around player, winning each of the Grand Slams at least once. But none of those subsequent victories came at Wimbledon.
She lost the 2011 final to Petra Kvitova, but otherwise has struggled simply to reach the second week. In six of her past seven appearances, Sharapova did not reach the quarterfinals, and lost in the second round three times.
On Tuesday, she opened with a 6-1, 6-0 victory over Great Britain's Samantha Murray, a 26-year-old granted a wild-card entry to the tournament. Murray had never played someone close to Sharapova's caliber, and certainly not on Wimbledon's Centre Court. The home crowd had barely finished its welcome for Murray before Sharapova brushed her from the tournament.
"I have a great opportunity to do well here," Sharapova said. "I've had great memories. There's no reason why I can't turn those results around that I had in the last couple of years."
Instead of dwelling on past upsets, Sharapova joined Nadal and Federer in quietly restoring order.