Boasting the same Latin looks, clad in near identical white sports wear – right down to the tie-up bandana – and armed with a similar topspin lefty forehand, Brazilian Thomaz Bellucci must have made the Spaniard feel like he was being confronted by an apparition of himself.
This replica Rafa had an unsettling effect on the world No.2, reeling off the first four games as the man from Mallorca made a false start to his attempt to reclaim the title he won in both 2008 and 2010. Despite winning his 11th Grand Slam crown, and seventh French Open, at Roland Garros recently, the Spaniard had been ambushed by Germany's Philipp Kohlschreiber in Halle recently and for a while a hubbub grew around SW19 as spectators digested what the scoreboards were telling them.
Although he has safely navigated the first round of each of the 32 majors he has previously contested, the Spaniard suddenly appeared vulnerable. Surely he could not go down early to another fellow left-hander, as he had done against Luxembourg's Gilles Muller in the second round in 2005? Suffice to say everyone really should have known better.
The Nadal serve kicked up a gear, he started mixing things up with a lob or two and suddenly the man from Sao Paolo – ranked No.80 in the world, although he has previously been just outside the top 20 – started to look a little bit spooked about what he might be about to achieve. With his opponent's work in transition letting him down, Nadal promptly reeled off four games in a row, and suddenly the Brazilian was doing well just to extend the first set to a tie-break. Such effort was rendered rather a waste of time when a further torrent of unforced errors allowed the Spaniard to win the breaker without the loss of a single point.
The immediate danger dissipated there and then, but there was just about enough to encourage Nadal's probable opponents in future rounds, potentially including Andy Murray. It took another gargantuan effort for the Spaniard to avoid losing his serve early in the second set, prior to engineering the twin breaks on the Bellucci serve which took it 6-2. Further glimpses of the Spaniard's repertoire arrived in the third – not least a sparkling cross court clip on the run which displayed the most tender of touches – but this was not vintage Nadal, as illustrated by the sloppy manner in which the Spaniard dropped his serve for a third time in the match prior to closing out a 7-6 (0), 6-2, 6-3 victory.
Afterwards, he admitted to being a bit rusty. "I feel lucky after being 4-0 down to be able to win the set," he said. "I didn't play my best match. Especially in the first set I played a little bit too nervous, a little bit not knowing exactly what to do. My movements were a little bit in defensive way, not in aggressive way. But I was able to keep winning the first set. That's the important thing and the good news. Then I started to play better. I have only played two matches on grass this year before here. I need time."
The Spaniard will play Lukas Rosol in the next round after his surprise victory over Ivan Dodig, with Kohlschreiber again a probable opponent in the following round after knocking out Tommy Haas. But not before he has watched his countrymen play their Euro 2012 semi-final against Portugal, and Cristiano Ronaldo, of whom the Real Madrid supporter is huge fan. "I had the chance to met him a few times," he said. "He's great. He's a winner. We will be in trouble if he has his best day. Portugal have a complete team. But you cannot expect to win the semi-finals of Euros against an easy opponent. It is the same when I am in the semi-finals of Roland Garros."
Rusty, of course, is also the nickname of Lleyton Hewitt, who endured a rough old time at the hands of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the No.5 seed, yesterday. The Muhammad Ali lookalike made light of a finger injury to strong arm Hewitt out of the competition 6-3 6-4 6-4, restricting himself to just one of his trademark dives as he brutalised the man who was champion here 10 years ago.
With the prodigious Bernard Tomic – a qualifier who reached the quarter-finals here last year – on the wrong end of an upset against David Goffin, the enterprising Belgian wild card, and Matthew Ebden also exiting, this was a bleak old day for the Australians. Indeed, it was the first time anyone from Down Under had failed to make the second round of the men's singles since 1938, although Hewitt was predictably feisty when it came to rebuffing accusations that Australian sport was on the decline. "I don't know about that," Hewitt said. "I can only comment on the tennis. The boys didn't have the best day, but I think we'll go all right in the Olympics. We've never been afraid of the Poms."
Just for good measure, Tomic smashed two racquets, received a code violation and was jeered off by some of the denizens of Court No.2. "I'm not normally like that," he said.
Murray's path through the tournament got a little clearer, with highly-rated young Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov beating the giant South African Kevin Anderson to book a showdown with Marcos Baghdatis, and Juan Martin del Potro easing past Robin Haase in four sets. The big serving Croat Ivo Karlovic is likely to be first up for the Scot, having been two sets to the good against Israel's Dudi Sela by the time the rain intervened.
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