This is not an original observation, but at Wimbledon — the world’s original major tennis tournament — it’s hard to make original observations: Rafael Nadal has not been able to get through the early and middle sections of Wimbledon in recent years.
That statement, on the surface, is as obvious as can be. Nadal has not gotten past the fourth round — Manic Monday — since his last run to a Wimbledon final in 2011. Yet, as plain as that truth is, it conceals another truth: The very fact that Nadal has struggled with Wimbledon in its earlier stages means he has very rarely labored in its latter periods.
This is the number of Wimbledon quarterfinals Nadal has lost:
This is the number of Wimbledon semifinals Nadal has lost:
This is the number of Wimbledon finals Nadal has lost to men other than Roger Federer: 1.
All told, Nadal is 9-0 in Wimbledon quarterfinals and semifinals, not counting a retirement by Novak Djokovic in the 2007 semifinals. That fact has been overshadowed by Nadal’s early exits from 2012-2017 at the All England Club, but it very clearly emphasizes the point that Wimbledon is a different tournament in week two compared to week one. The worn-out area behind the baseline has enabled clay-style movers such as Nadal, Djokovic, and — given his evolution on the surface — Andy Murray to all thrive in the second week of Wimbledon. All three men have won at least two championships and made at least three finals at SW19.
Nadal’s problem has never been the final stages of Wimbledon. The first week plus Manic Monday have ambushed him, with aggressive, go-for-broke playing styles from huge hitters normally doing him in: Dustin Brown, Nick Kyrgios, Lukas Rosol, and last year, Gilles Muller. (Nadal did not play in 2016, and Steve Darcis represents an aberrational conqueror removed from that just-given list.)
As the 2018 Wimbledon draw arrived, everyone knew what kind of draw Nadal couldn’t afford, and what kind of draw he desperately needed.
Nadal got the draw he needed.
Let’s get this straight: Mischa Zverev is a serve-and-volleyer, which might lead some people to think he can rush Nadal and take away his time. However, Zverev does not hit a huge serve or possess massive groundstrokes. He relies on his net skills, which are formidable, but his groundstrokes are way too slappy and modest. Gilles Muller hit a much bigger serve and could occasionally go big from the ground, which reduced Nadal’s margin for error. Zverev is a poor man’s version of Muller.
Fabio Fognini loves playing Nadal, but Fog doesn’t enjoy playing on grass and would need more out of his serve to remotely threaten Nadal on the green stuff. Nadal needed to avoid big servers, and in the first four rounds of Wimbledon, he did exactly that. Yes, Diego Schwartzman landed in his section, as he did in Australia this past January, but this is the number of Wimbledon main-draw matches Diego has won in his career:
Yep, that many.
Nadal avoided the Mullers, Kevin Andersons, John Isners, Milos Raonices, and Nick Kyrgioses of the world. His chances of getting past the fourth round are excellent.
Once he gets to the quarters at Wimbledon, the court plays differently. If the warm (borderline hot) weather forecast for the first week and a half at SW19 sticks around for the final half-week of the event, no one stands to benefit more than Nadal. If Petra Kvitova wants it cool and cloudy during this fortnight, Nadal is precisely the opposite. He has the right weather, but more than that, he has the right draw.
If there is going to be a time for Nadal to reclaim his lost Wimbledon mojo, now is the perfect one — not because of a zen principle about “living in the now” or “awakening to the present moment,” but because his draw is so beautifully mowed for him on the most famous lawns in tennis.