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Nadal proves his point to see off Czech and resume normal service

IT is possible to distil two hours 44 minutes into one intoxicating moment.

 Rafael Nadal of Spain serves on his way to a four-set victory in his second-round match to reach the third round of Wimbledon for the first time in three years.
Rafael Nadal of Spain serves on his way to a four-set victory in his second-round match to reach the third round of Wimbledon for the first time in three years.

The result is the purest drop of spirit, of vintage Rafa. It was produced when Senor Nadal was standing on Centre Court with the possibility of a forehand down the line. It is the sort of shot that he has made so often that it is almost performed with an involuntary twitch. The arm loops and the ball speeds high over the net, plummeting suddenly and drawing a puff of smoke. It is in. It is routine.

It should be unremarkable save that the 28-year-old Spaniard made the shot to save a set point. Any deviation, any tension, any lack of commitment and Nadal would have been two sets down against Lukas Rosol of the Czech Republic. But the man from Manacor takes 'ifs' and 'maybes' and makes 'so whats' and 'doesn't matter now'. He takes the insubstantial hypothetical and bludgeons it with his reality.

With one stroke, he extricated himself from a position of jeopardy and replaced it with predictability. Nadal, teetering on the abyss like a diva in heels peering over the Grand Canyon, suddenly and irrevocably stepped back and strode into the third round, 4-6, 7-6 (8-6), 6-4, 6-4.

He celebrated with the unrestrained joy of the competitor who has just completed what his whole being demands of him. He had won. It was particularly sweet because he could have been beaten. It is a fear that galvanises him. He admitted an hour after a titanic struggle the thought that he could lose "before and during the match". He added: "Now that the match finished, I really know that I had the chance to lose. But I didn't."

The backdrop to the contest was stormy for the Spaniard. He had lost to Rosol two years ago in a contest that was splendidly acrimonious. Rosol, the same age, had unnerved and outmuscled Nadal then.

He tried the same strategy yesterday. It almost worked but 'almost' is as relevant to winners as 'if' and 'but'. Lightning did not strike in the same place but there were plenty of rumbles of thunder.

Rosol's plan was to either hit the ball very hard or, where possible, hit it very, very hard. It did not matter whether he was serving or returning, on the backhand or on the forehand. He interrupted this fusillade with odd moments of beauty, with two backhand volleys in particularly contrasting starkly with his regular artillery.

He was unplayable when he managed to land his first serve, garnering 88% of points on it in the first two sets. Nadal, a veteran with the ribbons of all four grand slams, occasionally slumped in what seemed like despair as another rocket shot past him. The Spaniard, whose recent Wimbledon record is so bad it could be a novelty Christmas single, had dropped his serve at 4-4 and conceded a mini-break in the second-set tiebreaker. He had suffered and been broken. But could he come back?

Of course he could.

Nadal, who performs more rituals than a convention of druids, slowed the pace of the match, much to the annoyance of Rosol who believed that the world No.1 should have been penalised by umpire James Keothavong from Great Britain. '

"I think all the players should have same time between the points. But always best players, they're taking much more than the normal players and nobody is telling them nothing," said the world no. 52. It was a double negative that did not reflect positively on Nadal.

Rosol added: "He is doing all his rituals." He said he had complained to the umpire without success.

It would be wrong to suggest that Nadal's temporising was the decisive factor. A man of explosive action, Nadal found the words to explain the margin between success and failure in a grand slam match.

"The difference maybe is one point. Maybe if I lose that set point in the second set, if that forehand down the line went out, maybe I will be here with a loss," he said, surveying the media room. "But that's the sport. That forehand was a perfect forehand for that moment."

But he also articulated the essence of Rafa. "It is true that even when I was losing, I was fighting for every ball. I was fighting mentally, physically. I was able to find solutions through the whole match. At the same time my physical performance was different today than a few years ago."

The last sentiment was a reference to Rosol beating him when the Spaniard was on crippled knees. There was a sense of satisfaction in the win for Nadal, but also of relief.

It was the first Thursday and one of the greatest players of all time was celebrating his most advanced progress at the championships since 2012. This owes much to remodelled knees but more to the intangibles of will and spirit that have remained unchanged in Nadal since he picked up a racket 24 years ago.

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