(June 16, 2015) LONDON, England – On Monday, Lleyton Hewitt had a match point and lost it and, soon afterwards, the match. Today, Alexandr Dolgopolov, up against Rafael Nadal in the first round at Queen’s Club, found himself in the same situation: a single match point, on his own serve, in the second set tiebreak. A game, later, having held serve to open the third set, Dolgopolov was still shaking his head. In that second set tiebreak, he led 5-4 with two service points to come. The match point itself, on the Nadal serve, was always a trickier ask.
“Here is the right place to be for me today, and that’s my decision.” Nadal said on Monday, and “I feel myself ready to play well, and I gonna try.” noting that as long as his knees as fine he has “chances to compete well”. Today, he said, he doesn’t have the physical limitations he had in 2012 and 2013. Still, the first half of the year was poor, by his standards, and he said his main goal now is to qualify for the year-end championships. “Fourteen are enough,” he said, when asked if he felt himself ready to start winning Grand Slam titles again.
It’s three years since Nadal last played at Queen’s, largely, as he admitted in his opening press conference, for tax reasons. Most countries charge foreign athletes taxes on their local earnings; you (or your accountant) claim back what you’ve paid if it’s under a certain threshold. But a few years ago, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs began claiming that foreign tennis players owe Britain taxes on all their worldwide income, including endorsements, for the days they are in this country, on the basis that it’s appearing at Wimbledon that enables them to earn those monies. Andre Agassi took a case to court – and lost. For most players this is likely more nuisance than vast expense (although they’re likely paying higher accountants’ fees), but for the top few the difference could be a substantial chunk.
“I think changed a little bit the last ‑‑ still not the ideal situation for us, but is better than a few years ago,” Nadal said Monday. “I had to stop playing here for a while. But I like playing here. You know, I think is the best thing possible to try to play well and for my game. Is obvious that I have to say thanks to Halle for they give me during that years, but is obvious that in Halle I didn’t play well, no? Stuttgart, of course, were good. Here the courts are good.”
This was a great match for fans of spins, angles, and all-court play; both players are, after all, at their most comfortable on clay.
“I like it more the last few years,” Dolgopolov said of grass after the match. “I never played in my junior life on grass, so the first years was tough for me to figure out the movements.” He grew up on clay, and had to learn the hard way that sliding on grass was a bad idea. “You just fall down.” Asked about his sidespin backhand, a shot shown off to great effect toward the end of the second set, he said, “I just know it’s uncomfortable.” He added, “My father tried to teach me all my shots. Then I try to use them as I need to win matches.”
Indeed, Halle did not work out too well for Nadal: In 2014, he lost his first (second-round) match to wild card Dustin Brown; in 2013 he withdrew and then lost in the first round at Wimbledon to Steve Darcis; in 2012 he lost in the quarterfinals in both singles (Philipp Kohlschreiber) and doubles (partnered with Marcel Granollers) – and then lost in the second round of Wimbledon to Lukas Rosol. What Nadal may have forgotten is that other than 2008, when he beat Novak Djokovic in the final to win the title, his showings at Queen’s haven’t been quite so stellar either: he lost in the quarters in 2006, 2007, 2010, and 2011, and withdrew in 2009. Still: two Wimbledon titles, 2008 and 2010. As he says, grass is “probably the second surface where I had more success in my career, no?”
When Dolgopolov lost his next serve game, giving Nadal a 2-1 lead in that third set, it looked like yes, indeed, yesterday was repeating itself. With Nadal serving at 4-3, Dolgopolov lost his first break point with an inside-out forehand that landed wide – but took his second with an angled volley Nadal could do nothing about. Four-all, Dolgopolov serving. A double-fault gave Nadal two break points. The first was saved with a series of wide angles to outrun the Spaniard. The second, Dolgopolov hit a curling backhand with such wicked spin to Nadal’s backhand that all the latter could do was hit it into the net. Deuce. With Nadal coming in, Dolgopolov attempted a lob that went wildly wrong. An ace saved that third break point. Nadal then netted an attempted backhand approach shot to give Dolgopolov a game point, which he won when an attempted Nadal lob dropped just long. Back on serve, 5-4, Dolgopolov, with Nadal now serving to stay in the match.
A superb angled response to a Nadal drop shot secured the first point for Dolgopol. Nadal leveled with a forehand winner, but then netted a shot for 15-30. A return winner gave Dolgopolov two match points, the first of which he snatched with a well-executive passing shot, taking advantage of a slightly tentative Nadal foray to the net to win 6-3,6-7,6-4.
Afterwards, Nadal was disappointed but stoic. “I played against uncomfortable player in the first round here, and I had my chance. I didn’t play a bad match, but matches sometimes here decide in just a few things, and I was not lucky enough today. I probably didn’t play enough aggressive when I had the break up in the 4-3.” He will stay on to play the doubles with Marc Lopez, then will return home to Mallorca for a few days before coming back to practice for Wimbledon.
Dolgopolov was, of course, happier: “Overall I’m really happy with the match. You know, not even because I beat Nadal but the way I played and the way I fought back after a disappointing second set.” He meets Kevin Anderson, Hewitt’s conqueror, in the next round.