By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – Rafael Nadal has had more than enough nasty surprises at Wimbledon down the years so when he fell on the seat of his pants on the first point against Japan’s Yuichi Sugita on Tuesday he might have feared the worst.
When the third seed then lost 11 points in a row against the 30-year-old qualifier to trail 0-2 0-40 on Court One in his first grasscourt match for a year the alarm bells were ringing.
Thankfully for the 33-year-old, Sugita was no Lukas Rosol, Steve Darcis, or Dustin Brown — all of whom have hijacked the Spaniard’s attempt to add a third Wimbledon title with spectacular first-week shocks.
A shaken Nadal quickly recovered his equilibrium to post a comprehensive 6-3 6-1 6-3 victory.
Apart from the smattering of Japanese fans cheering on the admirable 274th-ranked Sugita, it was the result that 99.9% of people following the Championships desired.
It set up a mouth-watering second-round clash with Australian bad boy Nick Kyrgios — the potential grudge match everyone has been talking about since last Friday’s draw.
Kyrgios famously blew Nadal off court in the fourth round in 2014, since when his wild on-court behavior has attracted more headlines than his often mind-boggling tennis.
Nadal has simply added to his Grand Slam haul since then, making it 18 last month at Roland Garros, a place he reveres but which Kyrgios said “sucked” in a recent social media video when he also accused the Spaniard of being “super salty” in defeat.
Kyrgios’s comment presumably was in response to Nadal saying the Australian “lacked respect for the public, the opponent and himself” after losing a thriller to him in Acapulco in February.
After beating Sugita, twice Wimbledon champion Nadal said he was “too old” to get involved in feuds, preferring to look forward to another match at what he called an “amazing place”.
Inevitably he was asked about it later, admitting that Kyrgios, fined $17,500 for various rants at officials and fans at Queen’s Club last month, was a dangerous opponent.
“My thoughts are very clear, no? I play against a top talent player, very dangerous player when he wants to play tennis,” he said. “Normally against the best players, he wants to play tennis. When that happens, he’s a very dangerous opponent.
“For a second round, it’s a super tough one. I know that. I need to be at 100%. I’m going to fight for it.”
Claycourt king Nadal always appears a little vulnerable at the start of Wimbledon, even more so when he has not had any warm-up tournaments to get used to the skidding ball.
Sugita, who had lost his last seven Tour level matches, sensed that too and knew his only chance was an early attack.
For a while Nadal was unsettled but once he saved three break points in the third game and got on the scoreboard with a couple of aces, normal service was resumed.
Nadal broke back in the next game thanks to an unforced error from his opponent and broke again for a 5-3 lead before sealing the opening set when Sugita sliced long.
After that it was plain sailing as Nadal moved one short of 50 wins at the All England Club.
“When I lost 11 points in a row I was in a situation that was almost like facing three set points,” said Nadal, who was agonizingly close to beating Novak Djokovic in an epic semi-final a year ago. “Two breaks down here on grass is a big deal.
“Honestly it’s a good start for me winning straight sets against a player that knows how to play on grass.”
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Alison Williams and Ken Ferris)