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Wimbledon 2008: Rafa Puts in Some Shooting Practice

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If one thing demonstrated the awesome form of world number 2 Rafael Nadal Tuesday afternoon, it was a 7-0 tiebreaker to decide the third set and a match tally of seventeen straight aces. True, he was up against a player ranked 122. Yet on a surface not considered his favourite, he powered his way past the German Andreas Beck with no obvious difficulty.

Strange to watch the master of the clay-court game adapt those swinging, top-spin forehands to a surface where generally the strategy is to keep the ball low and flat, making it diffcult to return at choice. Yes, his usual whip-and-drive action, made shots ‘pop up’ off the surface, still, so often, they were unplayable if not unreachable. Such is his style that at times it seems he has mistakenly wandered onto a tennis court from another sport, say cricket or baseball, where big-hitting and length is required. His game defies the logic of grass-court play. Yet he has worked on it, adapted and tailored it to such an extent that on the evidence of this performance he must now be considered a very serious contender for this year’s title.

Beck, himself no mean server and certainly not a slight man was simply outplayed time and time again. Nadal was happy passing and at ease going across court from behind the baseline or wide of the tramlines. He blocked back Beck’s best serving with length and accuracy, immediately putting the server on the defence. Beck, like many others before him, must have though that if at least he could get into the net he perhaps, might have some chance. But with the ball coming at him with such depth and at wickedly sharp angles, the heavy top-spin disguising its trajectory, he was forced to play his game from the ground up and so to Nadal’s advantage.

He did not shame himself. In fact losing the first set 4-6 must have given him some courage. Greater have lost it for less. And in the third game of the second set facing break-point he was lucky with a mis-hit ball striking the tape and just dropping the right side of the line. He must have wondered if that was a tactic he should pursue. Still Nadal bagged the game and easily saw the set out at 6-4. In the third, a couple of unforced errors from his opponent, three fine aces and some determined play, brought him within a two points of the set at 5-4. Yet Nadal sensing the danger, stemmed the flow, levelling the set at 6-6 and so to a tie-breaker.

It seemed it was over before it started. At 5-0 Nadal fired his seventeenth ace down the centre of the court to make it 6-0, and an over hit return on the seventh point gave him the match.

Different from Federer’s elegance in his opening game, this was a whirlwind of power and pace. For those who doubt Nadal’s grass-court game, seventeen aces and a 7-0 margin in a tie-breaker suggest a man who, though he may prefer clay, has a game that will take some beating in this year’s All England Championships.

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