Rafael Nadal comes into top form as he outplays Botic van de Zandschulp

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As Rafael Nadal returned to practice following the radiofrequency ablation treatment on his difficult foot in the days after his French Open victory, he was charged with reacquainting himself with the grass, a surface he has not stepped foot on in three years, with no warmup tournament possible. He made it clear the early rounds of Wimbledon would be “vital”.

It is fair to say that things have gone well for him. Four rounds into his Wimbledon campaign, Nadal is not only still present as his attempt at the calendar-year grand slam continues, but he is growing with every match and rounding into form. He reached the quarter‑finals with his 18th grand slam match win in a row after a high‑class performance, outplaying Botic van de Zandschulp, the 21st seed, 6-4, 6-2, 7-6 (6).

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This has predictably been a process. Nadal lost a set in each of his first two rounds, conceding the second sets of his matches against Francisco Cerundolo and Ricardas Berankis. Since then he has soared.

In his third-round match against Lorenzo Sonego, friction was only present when Nadal beckoned him to the net and asked him to tone down his grunt. On Monday, Nadal was extremely efficient against a challenging opponent until nerves struck as he served for the match, but he pulled himself together to seal the win.

“I think I continued in a positive way,” Nadal said. “I think, till the end, until I played a bad game at 5-3, it has been a very positive match against a difficult opponent. Botic has been improving unbelievably in the past year.”

The past few days have underlined what a pleasant moment this is for Dutch tennis. In his second career tour-level main draw, his first being his shock run to the title at ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Tim van Rijthoven took a set off Novak Djokovic under the Centre Court roof on Sunday. Van de Zandschulp’s rise has been meteoric in its own way. Just over a year ago, he had never played on grass and he was ranked outside of the top 100. Now he is ranked 25th.

None of those improvements served him particularly well in the face of the pressure and intensity from Nadal early on. Nadal served well and struck the ball cleanly. He scythed the Dutchman with his vast arsenal of shots, gliding to the net, executing drop shots, low slices and pulling Van de Zandschulp around the court.

Rafael Nadal connects with a forehand against Botic van de Zandschulp
Rafael Nadal’s arsenal of shots was too much for Botic van de Zandschulp. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Nadal’s form was particularly reflected in how he dealt with his trials. When he squandered his service game from 40-0 at the beginning of the third set, committing a number of loose unforced errors, he immediately took it back, slamming a down-the-line backhand winner and cross-court forehand winner in consecutive points.

Nadal balked when serving out the match at 5-3, the momentum shifting as Van de Zanschulp harnessed his huge serve and forehand to force a tie-break, but Nadal ultimately recovered to win.

“In a personal way, after all the things that happened the last couple of months, to be able to be in the quarter-finals of Wimbledon after three years of not playing here is amazing for me. So very, very happy,” said Nadal.

Rare opportunities have presented themselves for many different players in the men’s draw, with more gaps than there would usually be due to the absence of Russian and Belarusian players, injuries, positive Covid tests for key players and underperformances by many of the promising younger players. But Nadal and Djokovic are still here, rolling through the draw, determined to write another page in the sport’s history books.

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Nadal’s next foe will be an interesting challenge that will reveal much about his form. Taylor Fritz, the 11th seed, is yet to drop a set in this tournament, reaching his first career grand slam quarter-final by defeating Jason Kubler 6-3, 6-1, 6-4.

While he has not faced a top-50 opponent, Fritz’s confidence is as high as most other challengers. He is on an eight-match winning streak after winning the Eastbourne title just over a week ago and he defeated Nadal in the Indian Wells final in March.

Although Nadal was suffering from a fractured rib in that encounter, already knowing what it feels like to beat Nadal in a big match is undeniably priceless.

As evening fell on Centre Court, Nadal analysed the challenge that Fritz presents, explaining to the crowd that he lost to the American in Indian Wells. Then he shrugged: “It’s gonna be a tough match, but we are in the quarter-finals of Wimbledon, so what can I expect?”

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