Nadal Taps into His Inner-Rafa at Wimbledon

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Bill Simons

Wimbledon

On June 6 1974, Taylor Fritz’s mother, Kathy May, fell to Billie Jean King at Wimbledon 6-1, 6-1.. Today, on June 6, 2022, Kathy May’s son, Taylor Fritz faced another king. The King of Clay, Rafa Nadal, who actually is pretty darn good on grass. He’s won a couple of Wimbledons.

Fritz scored the marquee victory of his life when he beat Senor Nadal to win Indian Wells. He just won the Eastbourne warm up tourney and was on an eight-match winning streak. 

Taylor, the No 11 seed who is 24, has wavy hair and a confidence that, these days, rarely wavers. Today Rafa was on court for his 47th Slam quarterfinal. It was Fritz’s first and the first time he played on Centre Court. So what – Taylor grabbed the first set.

Then perhaps the most problematic body in tennis again broke down. Nadal felt an abdominal pull. He gasped, his head dipped and he left the court briefly to get anti-inflammatories. His father and sister told him to quit. 

Rafa thought about it for a good while. But if anyone can deal with niggles (as the Brits call injuries) it’s Nadal, who has only retired from matches eight times. Soon the Spaniard was back on court. 

Taylor played it safe and was less aggressive. His level dropped. Nadal ran Taylor corner to corner to even the match 6-3, 7-5. Then Fritz resumed his first strike tennis, grip and rip. “His forehand down the line was placed with geometric precision,” said Radio Wimbledon.

As in Indian Wells, Nadal was hobbled. His service speed dipped to 90 mph. His backhand was diminished. Fritz went up two sets to one. 

“Everything is set up for Taylor,” said broadcaster Barry Cowan. “If Rafa would win this match it would be nothing short of extraordinary.” Then again, yesterday Novak scored an epic comeback win – why not Rafa?

But in a match filled with breaks and more seesaws than your local grade school, Rafa tapped his “refuse to lose” will. Never mind that he had been broken twice in the fourth set and seven times in the match, the Spaniard who has never lost a Wimbledon quarterfinal, broke late in the fourth to force a fifth set.

David Beckham and Rod Laver were captivated. We had an epic on our hands. A beloved Spaniard faced the pride of American tennis, a young Southern California hunk, who’s in the  storied tradition of Jack Kramer, who won 75 years ago, and the Pasadena-born Stan Smith, who prevailed 50 years ago. 

Today, Rafa was not flawless. Radio Wimbledon claimed, “The last time Nadal missed one of those forehands, God was a boy.” Rafa ran his 6’ 4” foe to the corners and unleashed a delicate dropshot to score a critical break. But Fritz was in full flight. He hit a brilliant, no-look volley and broke right back. 

Green grass, beige dirt and Taylor’s neon orange racket drew our eye. Warm temperatures embraced Centre Court and still skies looked down from above. The riveting battle drew fans from Madrid to Malibu. A voice in the press room asked, “How many hours of our lives have we spent watching Rafa Nadal?”

Like a fabled old heavyweight in the last round of a brutal fight, Nadal drew on his 21 years of experience, punishing groundies and scores of nasty backhand slices that muted Taylor’s power. He whipped a wicked, dipping forehand cross-court. Fritz dove, but his volley flew long. The rout was on. 

Rafa raised his level to prevail in the tiebreak 10-4 to score a 3-6, 7-5, 3-6, 7-5, 7-6(4) win.

“I just got destroyed,” said Taylor, “I don’t really feel like I did much wrong either…he was just really, really, really good…In the third fourth, fifth set, he was money. He was moving really well, playing amazing defense. I was absolutely ripping the ball in corners and he was running and ripping them back for winners.” 

Taylor confided that for the first time in his career he wanted to cry. He said the loss, “probably hurts more than any loss I’ve ever had.”

Now presumably Nadal will next meet the ascendent Nick Kyrgios, who beat Cristian Garin today, and is into his first Grand Slam semi. 

Rafa, the gentleman warrior, and Nick, the mercurial rebel, are polar opposites. There’s history and bad blood here. When Nick’s name came up in Rafa’s on-court interview, there were boos. Their Friday battle will be a must-watch popcorn match – if it happens.

Nadal, who in seven months has gone from a severe foot injury to a fractured rib to another foot injury to an abdominal strain, said he had been feeling pain for a few days but it was worse now. Asked whether he could play the semi, he said he didn’t know. “If I gave you an answer, I would be a liar.”

NO HICCUP FOR HALEP: Two weeks ago Simona Halep dismissed Amanda Anisimova. She lost just 3 games. Today, you could say, Anisimova did twice as well. She won six games. And after the Romanian’s one-way-traffic, 6-2, 6-4 win, we learned a few things

Unlike 1992 and 1975, when Andre Agassi and Arthur Ashe won here, there will not be an American Wimbledon champ who has the distinctive “AA” initials. Anisimova is of Russian heritage and in this year when Russians are banned, Kazakhstan’s Elena Rybakina is the only player left with Russian blood who could win.

More to the point, we know Amanda, the 2019 French Open semifinalist, will not be through to another Slam semi.

Halep proved that her panic attack in the second round of the French Open is in the rear view mirror. Moving beautifully and playing seamless defense, she again dominated a top Florida-based star on Centre Court. In 2019 she dismissed Serena 6-2, 6-2 to win Wimbledon. And we again realized that her new coach Patrick Mouratoglou, who helped in varying degrees the fortunes of Serena, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Coco Gauff, is a talented guide.

Halep will play Elena Rybakina in tomorrow’s semifinal. 

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