When he’s on his game, Rafael Nadal has a way of mowing down opponents that is almost surgical in its precision.
It was that way Wednesday, on Centre Court at the Rogers Cup, and the victim was Jesse Levine of Ottawa, who was fighting elbow issues and, after the first four games, really had no answers for whatever Nadal threw at him.
It was over in a hurry – 72 minutes in gusty, wind-blown conditions, Nadal emerging with a 6-2, 6-0 victory in his first action since a shocking loss to Steve Darcis in the first round of Wimbledon last June.
Nadal is always a big draw here. It was eight years ago, in 2005, when he made his hard-court breakthrough – a three-set victory over Andre Agassi in the final that helped catapult him to greatness and convince the tennis world he was more than just a clay-court specialist.
Since then, he’s been piling up the victories – 12 Grand Slams, a record 24 ATP World Tour Masters 1000 wins, including four more in what has been a remarkable comeback season for him.
Nadal didn’t play the second half of last year, as a result of a chronic left knee issue, and then missed time at the start of this year recovering from a stomach virus. There were real and legitimate questions, some raised by Nadal himself, about how long he’d be able to continue playing and at what level.
He is providing the answers: a 44-3 match record thus far, and a berth in the finals of the first nine tournaments he entered. Except for that curious and unexpected loss to Darcis, it has been a remarkable comeback.
With Nadal – and especially with Nadal playing on hard courts – the first questions are almost always about his knee and how much punishment it can take leading up to the U.S. Open.
Following the win over Levine, he pronounced himself fine for now.
“The knee is not bothering much to me. The last couple of days, I was able to practise with no limitation. That is the most important thing. After seven weeks without playing tennis, you start a tournament on hard court and that is tougher for the body. You always feel few things at the beginning. But, hopefully, those things will not limit my chances to play well.”
Nadal followed another former champion onto Centre Court on Wednesday – reigning Wimbledon champion Andy Murray, who won in straight sets over Marcel Granollers of Spain. Murray stumbled in his first appearance here two years ago, losing to South Africa’s Kevin Anderson, but entered the tournament on a 12-match win streak, after becoming the first British Wimbledon men’s singles champion since Fred Perry in 1936.
The situation was ripe for a letdown, but Murray was careful not to let that happen.
“I think if I’d lost today, it just breaks the momentum a little bit,” he said. “The more matches I can get in the next few weeks, the better. No matter how much you practice, it’s still different when you go out there … in match conditions.”
Murray is the No. 2 seed, but is in the bottom half of the draw, where the competition includes No. 3 David Ferrer, No. 5 Tomas Berdych and No. 6 Juan Martin del Potro. Nadal, meanwhile, is in the top half and seeded to meet the world’s No. 1 player, Novak Djokovic, in what could be an extraordinary semi-final.
Nadal, for his part, wasn’t looking past his next match against Poland’s Jerzy Janowicz, who squeaked out a three-set win over Frank Dancevic of Niagara Falls, Ont.
“I go step by step, day to day, week by week,” Nadal said. “I’m happy to be here in Montreal, I enjoy being here. I don’t think farther than that. I think about the match of tomorrow, and then we’ll see in Cincinnati, then we’ll see in the U.S. Open.
“That’s my philosophy today, because [it is] very difficult after what happened to me last year to think that far [ahead]. I won the first match. That’s important for me. To be through and have the chance to play more matches is very positive. We’ll see.”