Rafael Nadal survives scare and sinks Francisco Cerúndolo
- Second seed beats Argentinian 6-4, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4
- Nadal playing Wimbledon for first time since 2019
Two lines on a Covid test proved devastating for Matteo Berrettini on Tuesday morning, but for at least half a dozen players in the bottom half of the men’s singles draw, including the former champion Rafael Nadal, the chance of a run to next week’s final improved significantly with the bookies’ second-favourite removed from the reckoning.
Nadal, the winner in 2008 and 2010, has not reached the final since 2011, and there were moments in his four-set defeat of Francisco Cerúndolo on Centre Court when a first-round exit for only the second time in his Wimbledon career felt a good deal more plausible than a run into the second week.
This was the No 2 seed’s first match here since losing in the semis in 2019, and his ongoing issues with a foot injury had not allowed him to get his eye in for the grass after his win in the French Open at Roland Garros last month.
Cerúndolo, ranked No 41 in the world and making his Wimbledon debut, arrived with only one win on grass to his name but armed with a steely determination to make his 36-year-old opponent think and move as much as possible. He mixed drop shots with returns that landed right at the Spaniard’s feet, finding the baseline with impressive regularity and thumping down several forehand winners for good measure.
Nadal, meanwhile, was struggling to time his groundstrokes on both forehand and backhand, and Cerúndolo’s willingness to stick to his plan even when a few forehands drifted a little long was enough to keep him in the set. And if the 23-year-old enjoyed a little good fortune in game five to retrieve an early break of serve – Nadal slipped at 15-40 but still did almost enough to save the point – it was no more than he deserved.
Nadal was in need of a nudge to move up a notch, and he got it in what proved to be a decisive ninth game. A weak second serve at 15-30 was duly punished to leave him facing two break points, but he saved both with first-serve winners. He saved another two points later in the same way, and got the hold with a booming serve that gave his opponent no hope of a response.
He rode the momentum into the 10th game, breaking Cerúndolo’s serve for a second time at the second attempt to take the set 6-4, and then into the next set, where the sixth game was the turning point. Several exceptional rallies edged Nadal’s way to get him to deuce and a brilliantly improvised sliced forehand earned him the only break point he needed in the game.
A straight-sets success beckoned as Nadal closed it out 6-3 but Cerúndolo responded brilliantly, taking the third set 6-3 and building up a head of steam which took him a break up in the fourth. Suddenly every one of Nadal’s service games was a struggle, including an extended third game which went to five deuces and eventually the Argentinian’s way.
When Nadal went 0-40 down in the fifth game a decisive set was suddenly an odds-on shot, but again it was the jolt he needed. Cerúndolo saw a series of unreturnable first serves as the former champion secured the hold, and then several forehands of similar quality as his own serve slipped away soon afterwards.
From 4-4, Cerúndolo’s body language told the story of a match that was slipping away, and a final limp service game saw Nadal ease into the second round.
“First of all, all praise to Fran,” Nadal said. “I think he started to play great and has been a very tough opponent. For me it’s three years without being here so I’m very happy to be back.
“The last three years, I didn’t put foot on a grass court, so it took a while. Every day is a test and today has been an important test. At the beginning of a tournament, victory is the most important thing and it gave me a chance to practise my game and have another match in two days.”