25 June 2008

After the green-shirted, beige-breeched, bandana-browed buccaneer of Queen’s, we now had a figure so all-white he might have been the bridegroom at a particularly sunny beachside wedding. It will take matches a lot more demanding than this one before Rafael Nadal ties his Wimbledon knot, but at the very least this was two hours of practice as the banns were read.

The fact that proceedings stretched into the third hour is a tribute to the composure of 22-year-old German Andreas Beck, who kept his end up admirably for someone who had got to Centre Court through the qualifiers. He won the first game to love, took four games in each of the first two sets and reached a tie-break in the third after surviving four break points in the seventh game, two of them with aces.

He is a tall, loose-clothed youth with a tonking serve and a good uninhibited forehand which he was not afraid to dish out. But with his white cap and his slightly ponderous, stern-faced walk he sometimes looked like a middle-aged man on his way to a funeral – in yesterday’s circumstances, presumably his own.

Nadal was also in looser clothing, with long shorts rather than breeches this time and mercifully a bit easier in the seat, with less need for the unsightly bottom itch that we saw at Queen’s. However, the surprise of the first set was that on at least four occasions we nearly had a case of bottom sit as the Spaniard overbalanced backwards on receipt of serve, starting with the very first point.

In a bizarre sequence of events he patted Beck’s opening serve with what is best described as a defensive push, and when the German won the subsequent rally Nadal challenged Hawk-Eye to declare it out, which it bravely refused to do. At the time, one guessed that this might be just about the most dramatic thing to happen all match. One almost guessed right.

This was not due to any great failings in the man from Majorca, but there was a very real sense of Nadal trying to adjust the sights on his weapons. He was forever mixing up his shots with as much a sense of experiment as of any desperate fear of his opponent. It was noticeable how difficult Beck found the heavily sliced Nadal backhand. “His second serve was difficult to read,” said Nadal, who now hopes the organisers will give him an early second-round slot tomorrow so that he can see Spain’s Euro 2008 semi-final against Russia. “He served to the body and that was hard for me.”

While Roger Federer was instantly and gloriously at home on Monday, this was a man still trying to check out where the cupboards were after last year. It was not until he closed out the second set that we saw a full version of the Nadal skip-turn of elation – a moment so apparently decisive that the whole Royal Box immediately set off for tea.

They missed both the most dramatic moment of the whole match – when a lady passed out and proceedings stopped as medics were called – and a magnificent seventh game when Beck saved four break points before holding for 4-3. They also denied themselves the sight of a player who only appeared in the tie-break: Nadal as a fury unleashed, utterly uncompromising, impossibly quick, flawlessly inventive as he won it to love.

At 5-0 he hit an over-the-top forehand winner which left the crowd gasping with the sheer ferocity of it. For much of the match you had to remind yourself just how close Nadal had run Federer last year. Not in the tie-break, however.

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