Rafael Nadal, the four-time French Open champion bidding to make history, opens his Wimbledon 2008 campaign on Centre Court on Tuesday as he tries to follow his great rivals Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic into the second round.
The world’s Nos 1 and 3 gave contrasting accounts of their talents on the re-developed show court on Monday with Federer utterly imperious in beating his close friend Dominik Hrbaty in straight sets while Djokovic needed four to overcome the challenge of Germany’s Michael Berrer.
Nadal is engaged in an intriguing psychological war with Federer, having destroyed him for the loss of just four games in taking the French title at Roland Garros earlier this month; virtually every point he has played since then has been scrutinised to see whether he is playing at the requisite standard to overcome the Swiss master at his favourite tournament.
There is much chatter around the All England Club that this might be the year in which the second seed breaks Federer’s run of consecutive championships, which currently stands at five.
If he can do that, he will become the first man since Bjorn Borg, in 1980, to win in Paris and London in the same year and he will also become the first Spanish player since Manuel Santana in 1966 to take the Wimbledon title. If he can’t, the likelihood is that Federer will surpass Borg’s modern-day record and make it six straight.
Nadal, who won his first event on grass when winning the Arrtois Championship at Queen’s Club ten days ago, is due to play the second match on Centre Court this afternoon and opens against Berrer’s compatriot Andreas Beck, a player he has never played but who, at 122 in the world, should not be much threat despite the fact that he made the last eight at Halle last week.
That was a tournament won by Federer without losing a set or, indeed, a service game. That display, combined with the one he produced to dispatch his former training partner, suggests any concerns over his mental state are misplaced.
Federer is back on his favourite surface and looks completely at ease; he even wore a cardigan to demonstrate not only the power of his sponsors but exactly how comfortable he feels at this venue.
The pre-match knitwear replaced the incongruous blazer of recent years and is designed to evoke images of the 1920s and a more gentle era.
The ease of his passage only underlined the fact that the Swiss and his Slovakian opponent might be friends off the court but are light years apart on it. Indeed, the closest Hrbaty, in his last Wimbledon, got to Federer was when he sat by him at a change of ends.
The champion started by coasting to the first 11 points. The first set was taken 6-3 inside 25 minutes and the next two 6-2, 6-2. No-one mentioned Nadal afterwards but Federer was keen to impress upon his rival that normal service has been resumed.
“I haven’t been reading and I haven’t been listening to what has been said, so of course I haven’t been affected,” he said, twisting logic
“I came from a good tournament win in Halle where I couldn’t do any better than not dropping a set or a service game. I feel like I’m right there to do the same thing again this week.”
For his part, Djokovic looked relatively comfortable in the first stanza, which he won 7-5 but he then lost five straight games and surrendered the second set 2-6. By the time he took the next two 6-3, 6-0, he too looked like a potential winner of the tournament.
The scheduled semi final between the Serb and Federer is an enticing prospect.
“I haven’t played Roger on grass but it would be a big challenge for me,” Djokovic said.
“Mentally, him and Rafa are two of the strongest players in the world and two of the best players in the world. I’m one of the players behind who are trying to keep up with them and get a place higher.”
On Tuesday, it is Nadal who has to keep up with the pace-setters.
One seed who fell permanently out of the title race was Argentina’s David Nalbandian who looked anything but a top-ten ranked player in losing 4-6, 2-6, 4-6 to Canada’s Frank Dancevic. ``I expected better than this.’’ said a sullen Nalbandian, who hinted he was carrying an injury but refused to elaborate. Dancevic will next face American Bobby Reynolds as he bids to reach the third round of a grand slam for the first time.
Croatia’s Marat Safin also came through by seeing off Italian Fabio Fognini 6-1, 6-2, 7-6 (7/3) but Great Britain’s Alex Bogdanovic was unable to convert set points in either the first or fourth sets and lost 7-6 (7/4), 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7/4) to Simone Bolelli of Italy.
Compatriot Andy Murray will hope to avoid a similar fate when the 12th seed takes on France’s Fabrice Santoro after Nadal’s match on Centre Court.