Rafael Nadal is through to the second week of Wimbledon, and he could end it by completing the necessary third step of a calendar-year Grand Slam.
There is quite a way to go before that could happen, beyond the fact defending champion Novak Djokovic potentially awaits him in the final, but nevertheless Nadal is warming up to the task at SW19.
After requiring four sets to win his opening two matches, Nadal breezed past Lorenzo Sonego in three on Saturday, and faces No 21 seed Botic van de Zandschulp next for a place in the quarters.
For now, those foot injury concerns – having required injections at Roland Garros – appear to have subsided, with positive signs emerging from his most-recent win, even if it did end with some unexpected aggro and a subsequent apology.
Even Nadal gets annoyed (and apologetic)
There was a minor flashpoint near the end of the match, with Nadal seemingly frustrated when Sonego made a noise before hitting a shot.
The pair exchanged words at the net, although it looked more like Nadal giving his opponent a polite ticking off, and having also had a lengthy discussion straight after the match the No 2 seed immediately regretted his choice of location for the chat.
“Not spicy at all,” he said on court afterwards. “From the bottom of my heart I didn’t [mean] it in a negative way. I feel sorry if I bothered him… I feel really bad now if I bothered him so I feel sorry for that. I will talk to him after but this is not a problem.”
He added in his press conference: “I have to say that I was wrong. I should not call him on the net, so I apologize for that. My mistake.
“I spoke with him in the locker room and it stays there. My intention was never to bother him at all. Just to tell one thing that was bothering me that I think he was doing in that moment, but that’s it. I think there are some codes between players. Yeah, we had some issues there, but that’s it.”
Nadal’s potential route to final
- A4: Botic van de Zandschulp (21)
- QF: Taylor Fritz (11)
- SF: Alex de Minaur (19) (or Nick Kyrgios)
- F: Novak Djokovic (1)
The winners vs. unforced errors ratio – improving
For winners-unforced errors in his first two rounds, Nadal was 23-41 in his opener and then 35-39 in his second match. Far too many errors by his own lofty standards, and outnumbering his winners on both occasions will have frustrated the Spaniard.
He will have been far happier with Saturday’s haul of 24 winners to 17 unforced errors, however, and admitted his 28 points at the net – 20 of which he won – in just three sets was down to a more aggressive approach.
“My best match, without a doubt, since the tournament starts,” Nadal said. “I made improvements and am very happy for that.
“I did a lot of things much better than the previous days. The determination, the way that I managed to play more aggressive, going to the net plenty of times.
“It’s good victory against a great player. Very happy for that.”
After rattling through the opening two sets 6-1 6-2, it was all eyes on whether Nadal would drop the third, as he had done against both Francisco Cerundolo (R1) and Ricardas Berankis (R2).
What helped Nadal on this occasion was an immediate break, although there was a slight lapse in the eighth game when he was broken to love.
Nevertheless, he broke back immediately and served it out in the following game, meaning in this instance the blip was short-lived and did not come at the cost of a set.
The wrong court
There were some eyebrows raised over Saturday’s schedule, with Katie Boulter out on No 2 Court and arguably the pick of the day – Stefanos Tsitsipas’ match with Nick Kyrgios – over on No 1 Court.
It would not have been surprising had Nadal been bumped off Centre, but there he was, racing through his match while the day’s big story was unfolding on the other show court.
Nadal even dropped to the second court at the French Open when winning the tournament earlier this year, but he is three for three on Center so far at Wimbledon.
A missed opportunity given what unfolded between Kyrgios and Tsitsipas? Perhaps, but regardless of Wimbledon’s pick, that did not stop BBC from switching to that match when Nadal was cruising at two sets up.
Nadal’s next opponent is now more confident
Nadal has only played Van de Zandschulp once, but that just so happened to be in the previous grand slam, with the Spaniard winning 6-3 6-2 6-4 back in May en route to winning a 14th French Open.
Despite picking up just nine games, Van de Zandschulp believes that facing the “King of Clay” on grass could make for a closer affair.
“The biggest challenge in tennis is to play Rafa at Roland Garros. It was a tough one there, but [I have] more confidence here to really make a shot,” said Van de Zandschulp, who beat Richard Gasquet 7-5 2-6 7-6(7) 6-1 to reach the fourth round.
“Hopefully it’s going [to be] better than the first time. I was a little bit nervous there during the beginning of the match, so hopefully I can start better off here.
“He didn’t play so many matches on grass the last couple of years. You see him struggle a little bit. Of course he’s winning the first few rounds. But I think maybe I can hurt him on the grass courts here.”
Follow i sport on Facebook for more tennis news, interviews and features, or listen to the Love Tennis Podcast presented by i’s James Gray on iTunes, Spotify or just search “Love Tennis” wherever you get your podcasts