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Rafael Nadal Hopes to Regain Past Success on Wimbledon Grass

The New York Times logoThe New York Times 29-06-2017 By BEN ROTHENBERG

Nadal during his loss to Dustin Brown, who was ranked No. 102, in the second round of Wimbledon in 2015.

Nadal during his loss to Dustin Brown, who was ranked No. 102, in the second round of Wimbledon in 2015.
© Glyn Kirk/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

CALVIÀ, Majorca — It is the time for a familiar summer switch for Rafael Nadal. Each June, he trades clay-court coronations for grass-court consternation.

Two weeks ago, Nadal won his 10th French Open title, further cementing his standing as the best clay court player in the history of men’s tennis. Now he must move to less certain footing as the tour shifts to grass, where early career triumphs have given way to challenges.

After a week of rest, Nadal commuted from the east side of his home island to the west, to the site of the Mallorca Open, a women’s grass-court event, where he practiced in the mornings before the heat and the tournament took over.

“I still have work to do,” Nadal said at the tournament last week. “The level I’m at now is not enough to compete like I want at Wimbledon.”

After an injury-plagued 2016, Nadal, 31, has recaptured the spark of a few years ago. His victory at Roland Garros was his first major tournament win since the 2014 French Open, and it was perhaps the best performance of his 10 titles there. He did not drop a set and lost only 35 games.

In recent years, however, his fortunes have quickly shifted with the change in surfaces.

At the outset of his career, major successes came more quickly for Nadal on grass than on the hard courts. Before he reached a final at the Australian Open or the United States Open, he had already made it to three consecutive finals at Wimbledon. He fell to Roger Federer in 2006 and 2007 before beating him in 2008. After being unable to defend his title in 2009 because of knee problems, Nadal returned to win his second title there in 2010 and reached another final in 2011.

But after that run of five finals in six years, Nadal’s acuity on grass was abruptly uprooted. In 2012, he suffered a shocking loss to No. 100 Lukas Rosol in the second round at Wimbledon. The contentious five-setter ended with Rosol firing aces seemingly at will, a performance that could have been dismissed as an example of a lesser player’s being locked in against a superior foe.

Rather than an outlier, however, that match was an omen. What followed for Nadal was an improbable spell of Wimbledon defeats to players with triple-digit rankings: a first-round loss to No. 135 Steve Darcis in 2013 and a fourth-round loss to No. 144 Nick Kyrgios in 2014. While he was struggling on grass, he flourished on other surfaces, winning three straight French Open titles and the United States Open in 2013.

Then there was a hint of another reversal in 2015, a quarterfinal loss at Roland Garros followed by a title in Stuttgart, Germany, which was Nadal’s first on grass in five years. Two weeks later at Wimbledon, he was handed an early defeat, by No. 102 Dustin Brown in the second round.

Because of a wrist injury that curtailed his French Open and limited his subsequent tournament appearances last year — and fatigue from a heavy match load this year that forced him out of the Queen’s Club event last week — Nadal had not played a match on grass since. He will enter Wimbledon next week without having played a competitive match on the surface in two years.

For Nadal and his coach and uncle, Toni Nadal, the explanation for the dip in his performance on grass is simple: difficulty bending his knees enough for him to hit the surface’s low-bouncing balls with the force he once did.

“When you play on hard court in Australia or U.S.A., you hit the ball up high,” Toni Nadal said. “You don’t need to spend much time low. And also, on grass, the court moves a little. It’s not stable, and when you have problems in your knees, then it’s a problem.”

Rafael Nadal did not practice at full intensity in Majorca and acknowledged that he was uncertain how his knees would respond when he prepared this week in London.

“Then it will be when I have to force it, and we will really see how my knees hold up,” Nadal said. “But I have the confidence that they can do it. Then, the results will always depend on many factors. I just hope I can train and compete in freedom.”

Early returns were not positive, however: At an exhibition match Wednesday in London, he lost in straight sets, 6-3, 6-2, to 14th-ranked Tomas Berdych.

Toni Nadal, who called Federer “the maximum favorite” at Wimbledon, said the tournament was the one where his nephew’s results were most affected by the opponents he faced, particularly in the early rounds, when the lawns are lush and slick.

“When you have a bad draw, it is too difficult,” Toni Nadal said. “Playing there the first week is complicated, and if you play against some very good servers you have a big problem.”

Toni Nadal said he hoped the successful start to Rafael’s season — he won four titles on clay and reached three finals on hard courts — would both motivate and relax him at Wimbledon.

“When you have won, you arrive to the next tournament with these victories, and your confidence is higher,” he said. “You have more possibility to win. And if we will lose early in Wimbledon? O.K., we have won Roland Garros — it’s not too bad. This means that you can play better.”

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