Rafael Nadal digs deep as Covid hits the Wimbledon draw

Looking for a calendar Grand Slam the Spaniard has already won the first two majors this year

Bidding to win back-to-back Roland Garros and Wimbledon titles for the third time in his career, Rafa Nadal patrolled Centre Court with certainty and swagger against Argentinian Francisco Cerundolo on Tuesday.

But the 6-4, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 win demanded he dig deeper in the third and fourth sets than he might have imagined over the three hours and 33 minutes.

At times it had the feel of an exhibition of power hitting against the world number 41, but there were also a mountain of unforced errors. Four times Nadal had his serve broken and 14 times he saved break points against an opponent who knew he had to step up to survive.

Nadal had to save three break points at 4-4 before taking the first set, then Cerundolo blew another break point at 2-2 allowing the Spaniard to take control and move into a two-set lead.

Offensive and confident and seemingly over the foot injury that had threatened to keep him away from London this year, Nadal, now 36, has created his best opportunity at securing a calendar Grand Slam by winning the first two legs of the four majors this year.

He is now halfway there and has never been so close to a feat that was last achieved in the men’s game in 1969 by the Australian Rod Laver.

Following the French Open final, Nadal revealed that he had received painkilling injections to numb his left foot before each of his matches.

He said he would not do the same again at any tournament, not even Wimbledon, because of the risks connected to a chronic foot condition known as Müller-Weiss syndrome that is linked to a deformity in the navicular bone and first threatened his career in his late teens.

Cerundolo broke twice to take control in the third set and despite wasting three set points at 5-3, eventually closed it out. The contest was then in doubt when he broke first in the fourth set. But at 4-3 down, Nadal battled to win three games in a row. Game set and match.

Italy’s Matteo Berrettini, seeded eight and one of the favourites for the men’s singles, was forced to withdraw along with Marin Cilic in advance of his first round match against Chile’s Cristian Garin after testing positive for Covid-19.

“I am heartbroken,” said Berrettini, who said he has had flu symptoms and been isolating for the past few days. He has been replaced in the draw by lucky loser Elias Ymer of Sweden.

“I have no words to describe the extreme disappointment I feel,” added Berrettini. “The dream is over for this year, but I will be back stronger.”

Players do not have to test routinely at Wimbledon this year, which is back at full capacity for the whole tournament after some restrictions were still in place in 2021. Covid infections are, however, continuing to rise in the UK, according to figures from their office for national statistics published on Saturday.

Nick Kyrgios seemed to be saying a pox on all your houses in his first match. The 27-year-old, who came out on top in a fiery five-setter told rowdy critics in the crowd: “That one’s for you — you know who you are.”

The Australian defeated British wild card Paul Jubb 3-6, 6-1, 7-5, 6-7 (3/7), 7-5 on the back of 30 aces and 67 winners. But Kyrgios default setting is often aggrieved and so he was with the mouthy fans on a packed Court Three. He also demanded they be removed from the stadium as early as the first set.

A player, who crowds queue to watch, his insults kept flying, calling a one line judge “a snitch with no fans”.

However Kyrgios was not for turning and made an observation which could find broad agreement.

“Like someone just yelled out I was shit in the crowd today. Is that normal? No,” he said. “I just think it’s a whole generation of people like on social media feeling like they have a right to comment on every single thing with negativity.

“It just carries on to real life. I physically can’t do anything or say anything because I’ll get in trouble. They just feel the need that they’re just able to say anything they want.”

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times