Like an old hunting dog on the prowl, Rafael Nadal sniffs a bigger prize than merely moving quietly through the first week at Wimbledon.
Of all the veterans left in the game – and there are more than at any time in the Open era – the Spaniard with the thinning pate and a left foot that needed minor surgery after he won his 14th French Open has plenty of unfinished business.
“His consistency over a long period of time is the benchmark for all athletes,” the England manager, Gareth Southgate, told the BBC on the way to his Centre Court seat for Nadal’s match against the 27-year-old Italian, Lorenzo Sonego.
Nadal won 6-1, 6-2, 6-4, in a late start, finishing under the roof and lights at Sonego’s insistence, the installation of which wasted more than 12 minutes.
Sonego, 54 in the world, aimed for power over precision in their first ever meeting but never properly recovered from an early blitz. The first and second sets each went by in 27 minutes. Nadal was imperious, bordering on complacent; Sonego was desperate, and his errors mounted.
With the match all but done, Sonego broke to love, delaying the inevitable. Nadal did not hide his frustration before breaking back and serving out the match in a little over two hours.
He next plays the Dutch world No 25, Botic van de Zandschulp.
Ridiculously, given his long list of injuries, Nadal is now four wins away from a third successive slam title. It will be immensely difficult on the fast-wearing Wimbledon grass, where he has won only twice, in 2008 and 2010 – and he was out for four months last year hobbling into the Australian Open in January unsure if he could even finish the fortnight. Now, though, he will harbour not altogether fanciful notions of emulating Rod Laver, the last player to do the calendar slam, in 1969.
Nadal’s foot injury has plagued him since 2005 and flared at Roland Garros – but could not stop him. Nor could Novak Djokovic, banned from Melbourne and no certainty to play in the US Open in September.
If Djokovic is unable to play in New York because of his refusal to be vaccinated, thoughts Nadal has recently entertained about retiring will surely be shelved.
“A couple of weeks ago I was close to it,” Nadal revealed after his edgy win over Ricardas Berankis in the second round. “Now I don’t feel that way. But, of course, when that day arrives, it is going to be a [big] change.”
On Friday, he Tweeted, “Now is the moment to keep going.”
Meanwhile, Djokovic – who also plays a Dutchman, Tim van Rijthoven, in the fourth round – is in frighteningly good form. Nobody is betting against a 60th meeting between the 35-year-old Serb and his old Spanish friend in the final here next weekend.