Rafael Nadal came through his biggest test so far with flying colours against the big-serving Karen Khachanov.
Nadal fired 41 winners to beat the 6ft 6in Russian 6-1, 6-4, 7-6(3) on Centre Court to move into the last 16 for the first time since 2014.
Although the Spaniard has rarely looked better on the grass since he reached the most recent of his five Wimbledon finals in 2011, he was forced to save a set point in the third before clinching the match in the tie-break with a big serve.
“For a while I played fantastic, in the first set and a half, it was a great level,” Nadal said. “Then it was a little bit tougher.”
Having predicted a “great future” for his occasional training partner two days ago, Nadal reduced the powerful 21-year-old to a mere bystander in the first 30 minutes of the match.
Moving energetically on the grass on a sweltering late afternoon, Nadal won the opening game to love in one minute, striking two aces, including a second-serve ace.
A forehand winner in the second game against the Halle semi-finalist was struck with such ferocity that it drew gasps from the Centre Court crowd, which included former England football player David Beckham and Spanish golfer Sergio Garcia in the Royal Box.
Such was Nadal’s quest for perfection, he slapped himself on the thigh when he made a rare error in the third game. Although Nadal’s focus momentarily lapsed at 4-0, when he was broken, it took Khachanov, ranked No.34, half an hour to get a service hold on the board, in the first game of the second set.
After winning both sets with a love game, Nadal was put to the test in the third set, when Khachanov had three break points for a 5-3 lead.
After saving the first two with his much-improved second serve, Nadal got lucky on the third, when a ground stroke by Khachanov that landed on the baseline was called out. After a challenge by the Russian, the point had to be replayed and this time Nadal won it as he wrong-footed his tall opponent with a forehand winner to hold for 4-4.
After Nadal saved a set point at 5-6 down with a beautifully played disguised drop shot, the match went into a tie-break, which the Spaniard won as his opponent made three unforced errors.
“I played some good shots, from the forehand and the backhand,” said Nadal. “Happy with almost everything. But in the third, I started to play a little bit shorter.”
Having played five finals, and winning the title in 2008 and 2010, the lawns of the All England Club had become the stuff of nightmares for Nadal in the past six years as he often struggled with injuries, including tendonitis in the knee.
Since losing the 2011 final to Novak Djokovic, Nadal has been knocked out before the quarter-finals for four straight years by a player ranked outside of the Top 100. He missed Wimbledon last year with a wrist injury.
Even after winning a record tenth French Open title at Roland Garros last month on his beloved clay without dropping a single set, Nadal sounded cautious.
With the balls bouncing much lower on the grass, much would depend on how his knees would react, he said in Paris after he crushed Stan Wawrinka in the final.
But some much-needed rest at home in Mallorca seems to have worked wonders and Nadal has picked up where he left off in Paris: beating his opponents in straight sets.
His win over Khachanov means he has now won 28 consecutive sets at Grand Slams, matching his 2010 record when he clinched every match from the Wimbledon quarter-final to the US Open final in straight sets.
It has been seven years since he last completed the French Open-Wimbledon double. In this form, could he equal Bjorn Borg’s record by achieving back-to-back wins in Paris and London for a third time next weekend?
Up next is Gilles Muller, the No.16 seed from Luxembourg who beat Britain’s Aljaz Bedene in straight sets. Although Nadal has won four out of their five meetings, his lone defeat came on the Wimbledon grass, in 2005.
“He’s a very good opponent,” Nadal said. “Grass is his best surface – it’s going to be a tough one. I need to be very aggressive, and very fast with my legs.”
Source: Danielle Rossingh| Wimbledon