Wimbledon draw breakdown: Rafael Nadal

Jul 1 8 min read

1:09 pm

Nadal on Flickr by Marc Di Luzio under CC2.0

There’s a saying that was going around Bangalore in the weeks leading up to the 2018 Indian Premier League. “Ee sala cup namde”, meaning “this time, the cup is ours”, a wishful mantra fuelled by years of disappointing flameouts. The resemblance this bears to Nadal fans come Wimbledon is rather uncanny. “This year”, they say. “This is the year he will return to his former grass court glory.” From making five straight finals between 2006 and 2011 to zero quarter-finals between 2012 and 2017, Nadal’s record on the grass has certainly plummeted. The common factor in most of these defeats has been a dangerous first-week floater emerging to knock the Spaniard out of the tournament in brutal fashion. Rosol, Kyrgios, Brown, Muller - all conform spectacularly to the ideal player built to defeat Nadal on grass - a massive serve, aggression from the baseline, and unshakeable confidence to match. Thus, examining Nadal’s draw at Wimbledon has become a customary pre-tournament event for experts and laymen alike, with fans sifting feverishly through his quarter of the draw, inspecting the names like one would a sketchy looking tomato at the local market. Let us uphold this great tradition by analysing his draw, and seeing if there is any validity to the claim that 2018 will finally be his year.

Round of 128 - Dudi Sela

Nadal seems to have lucked out with regards to his first-round opponent. In the same way China is opposite Peru on the globe, Sela is opposite Kyrgios on the spectrum of tennis players. He is a short, slim baseliner whose main weapons are his footspeed and counterpunching skill. The problem for the Israeli is that Nadal is a tall, stocky baseliner who has significantly better footspeed and counterpunching skill, not to mention the hundred other weapons he possesses. It would be quite the shock if Nadal managed to lose this match, but then again, he did lose to Darcis in the first round in 2013. Interestingly enough, Sela beat Isner at last year’s Wimbledon, so it might not be as straightforward as it seems.

Round of 64 - Mikhail Kukushin/Vasek Pospisil

Comparing the first and second round, it seems there is one eternal truth. The draw giveth, and the draw taketh away. Nadal’s two potential opponents for the second round reek of his ghastly grass-court past. Kukushkin has been having a solid run this grass season, with a thrashing of Ferrer and a hard-fought victory over Edmund to his name. A strong serve and a willingness to move forward were prominent during his last meeting with Nadal, where he managed to grab a set before going down in flames. That encounter occurred at Wimbledon 2014, just a few days before Kyrgios stunned the world with a brilliant walloping of the Spaniard.

Pospisil, on the other hand, needs no introduction - at 6’6’’, armed with a deadly serve, he is the stuff of Nadal’s recent grass-court nightmares. While he hasn’t been having the best season, he is no doubt a threat to Nadal. It would not be particularly bold to predict a defeat for Nadal in this round. But should he make it through, he will fancy his chances at reaching the second week.

Round of 32 - Mischa Zverev/Marco Cecchinato/Alex de Minaur

This list of names does seem rather daunting at first sight, but the threats these players pose are unlikely to materialise into anything substantial. Zverev is among the last of the dying breed of serve-and-volleyers, who have always salivated at the prospect of chewing up baseliners on grass. While Zverev does possess an arsenal of unusual weapons, several of these are mitigated by Nadal’s playstyle. His lefty slice serve on the ad court, often used to great effect to save break points, will be dulled by the fact that Nadal is a lefty himself. His propensity for rushing the net will end with him getting passed by banana shots, apple shots, mango shots, and a dozen other types of passing shots.

Cecchinato, on the other hand, is a more interesting story. Enjoying an unexpected career peak, he has transitioned impressively from clay to grass, reaching the Eastbourne semis this week. Additionally, his win over Djokovic in Paris last month showed he has the fortitude to defeat a big name on a big court when the stakes are high. Will he be able to repeat the feat against Nadal? Time will tell.

De Minaur is a dark horse pick for Nadal’s third round opponent. The young Aussie has been improving tremendously over the past year. The last time Nadal beat Kukushkin at Wimbledon, he lost to a 19-year old Aussie in his very next match. Could it happen again?

Round of 16 - Jiri Vesely/Fabio Fognini

The keener among you will have noticed that 14th seed Schwartzman is not listed here, despite being the highest seed in his section. The reason for this is rather obvious - the Argentine has won a career total of zero matches on grass. That’s right, zero. My pick to take his place is Czech giant Vesely, who is yet another player with the size and confidence to take out Nadal on Centre Court. A tall lefty, just like Muller last year, his mighty serve and forehand will certainly trouble Nadal. But will he get there? His most likely roadblock will be Fognini.

Fognini isn’t particularly fond of grass, although it does suit his occasional bursts of showmanship. He has had some interesting matches with Nadal over the years, and has been one of the few men to consistently push him hard on clay. When he catches fire, he is very difficult to stop, as was seen in their meeting at the 2015 US Open - a match that left Nadal in a discombobulated heap of tears.

Quarter-finals - Andy Murray/Juan Martin del Potro

If Nadal makes it to the quarter-finals, he can give himself a massive pat on the back. Depending on how the draw plays out, he could have a leisurely stroll into the second week (Sela/Kukushkin/de Minaur/Fognini), or a harrowing series of draining battles (Sela/Pospisil/Zverev/Vesely). But there is a bright side to this - every time he has reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon, he has reached the final. The grass begins to change during the second week, withering away at the baseline, leaving the dirt underneath it exposed. This “claying” of the surface helps Nadal immensely, as does the filling of his confidence bar. But things might not be so easy this time. In the quarters, a resurgent Murray or an ambitious del Potro await.

Murray is the less likely of the two to make it all the way there, since he just returned from injury and will probably need some time to play himself back to top form. Their head-to-head on grass is 3-0 to Nadal, and so it seems the Scot will not be a particularly bothersome presence in his head. 

Del Potro, however, poses a big threat. While he has never loved grass much, or at all, he does count a Wimbledon semi-final and a grass-court Olympic bronze among his achievements. They met before at Wimbledon 2011 in an enthralling quarter-final, which he lost in four sets. His dangerous forehand is amplified by the low, quick grass, but his underdeveloped movement can be exposed by a player with rhythm. Nadal will likely have lots of rhythm come the quarters, and thus, it seems like his earlier rounds will prove to be the bigger challenge.

Semi-finals - Novak Djokovic

There are several possible opponents Nadal could meet in the semi-finals. Kyrgios, Thiem, Zverev and Djokovic are all on that list. Considering Thiem’s grass-court woes, Zverev’s Grand Slam woes, and Kyrgios’ mental woes, the only one worth discussing in detail seems to be Djokovic. While he may not be fully back yet, he is gaining power with each tournament he plays, posting better results each week. He even held championship point at Queen’s a week ago. There is almost nothing fresh that can be said about this match-up. It is quite hard to say who will come out on top should it happen. Nadal has been in much better form, but a rejuvenated Djokovic is particularly strong against him. Nadal does lead their grass-court head-to-head, but it seems irrelevant given the topsy-turvy nature of their rivalry.

The others are in with shouts, but not much else. Zverev will be looking to make him Slam breakthrough. If he does, he would be a big problem for Nadal, given his big serve and surprisingly adept movement. The same goes for Kyrgios, who has beaten Nadal at Wimbledon in the past. As for Thiem, well, the less that is said, the better.

Final - Marin Cilic/Roger Federer

Even if an absurd conjunction of outcomes lead Nadal to the final, the job is far from done. Standing across from him will be the best grass-courter of the year, either Cilic or Federer. After two losses in the last four Slam finals, Cilic will be looking to finally grab his second Slam. Federer, on the other hand, is after number 21. It is hard to say who would be a bigger threat to Nadal. Federer has beaten him in their last five matches, which is certainly a fact Nadal would prefer not to remember. Cilic beat Nadal at the Australian Open earlier this year, another thing Nadal would rather not think about. They both play splendid grass-court tennis and are hungry for the title. The question, of course, is if Nadal is hungrier, and if fate will be kind to him this coming fortnight.