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'People who are writing off Rafa have small memories'

Mark Hodgkinson
June 25, 2014
Rafael Nadal has won Wimbledon twice © PA Photos
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Memories have been wiped at the All England Club. Wimbledon's grass-court amnesiacs seem to be of the opinion that Rafa Nadal - who on Thursday plays a second-round match against Lukas Rosol, the Czech who defeated him at the same stage of the 2012 tournament - doesn't know how to succeed on the lawns of London.

They forget that Nadal is one of the most successful grass-court players of modern times. So far, during what has been a remarkable tennis life, the Majorcan has appeared in five Wimbledon finals and has won two titles. And his first victory, achieved in 2008, with a five-set win over Roger Federer that was completed in the Centre Court gloaming, retains a near-mythical status in tennis; you'll never see a finer match here or anywhere else in the sport.

When Rafa is healthy, grass is good for him

If it wasn't for Federer, who beat Nadal in the 2006 and 2007 finals, we would now be talking about the possibility of the world number one trying to put himself level with Bjorn Borg on five titles. Only Federer and Pete Sampras, who have seven each, have won more than the great Swede.

It was Nadal who described this tournament the other day as "the most dangerous" on the tennis calendar, his argument being that the leading players are particularly vulnerable to defeat in the early rounds. And there's no doubt that Nadal's recent grass-court experiences haven't been happy ones - he lost in the opening round of last summer's Wimbledon to Belgium's Steve Darcis. Then, in his first round this summer, he dropped the opening set against Slovakia's Martin Klizan before coming back to win the match in four sets.

Even so, you suspect that if Nadal beats Rosol, and then makes the second week, he will have played himself into some form on the greensward. This fortnight might end with Nadal wearing a tuxedo.

"When Rafa is healthy, grass is good for him. People say that Rafa can't play well here, but maybe that's because those people have a small memory," Nadal's uncle and coach, Toni, said. "He made the final in 2006, 2007 and 2008, then he didn't play in 2009, and then he made the final in 2010 and 2011. He made five finals and then we had problems with the knees."

While Nadal doesn't have a big serve to win free or cheap points on grass, his uncle said he plays with "a good mind and good intensity". When he didn't two years' ago, Rosol's victory over him was regarded as the greatest upset in the history of the grand slams.

However, it has since been downgraded, as it became apparent that Nadal was suffering with the knee pain uncle Toni alluded to during the 2012 Championships. He didn't play again that year.

It will be a different Nadal who plays against the Eastern European this time. "Two years ago, we had many problems when we arrived here. At every practice, Rafa couldn't go down with his knees. His mentality also wasn't good then for that reason," said Toni Nadal, who was speaking at a Lavazza event. "Now he is moving well, and he doesn't have a lot of pain, and it's another game. I know that we can lose. But this time we can play."

Toni Nadal will be nervous on Thursday (though he won't be "jumping in the air" during the match, because of a back problem that prevented him from attending some of Rafa's pre-tournament training sessions). However, an anxious Toni Nadal is hardly a news story in tennis - he frequently tends to be on edge in the guests' box. "I'm always nervous when I'm watching Rafa play. It's more difficult for me because, as well as being his coach, I'm his family. With tennis, it always feels as though you have the water up to your neck. You're always afraid."

Avenging that defeat of two years ago won't be Rafa Nadal's primary motivation when facing Rosol. "Playing against Rosol again isn't a big motivation. The motivation is the tournament," his uncle said. "Rafa is the No.1 in the world, and the No.1 should have some confidence when he plays everywhere. Maybe the confidence isn't the same as when he plays at Roland Garros, or at the Australian Open or the US Open, but I think and I hope that Rafa will have a good tournament."

Toni Nadal gets nervous watching nephew and coaching pupil Rafael in action © Getty Images
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Mark Hodgkinson is the author of Ivan Lendl: The Man Who Made Murray. He is writing daily pieces for ESPN during Wimbledon.

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