By Paul Lagan on Centre Court, Wimbledon
Nadal v Van De Zandschulp
6-4, 6-2, 7-6
Rafael Nadal said after a hard fought three-set victory over Dutchman Botic Van de Zandschulp to reach the quarterfinal for the eighth time: “I am continually playing in a positive way. My body is improving this year.
“After all the things that has happened with injuries and after not playing here for three years it is amazing and I’m very happy.
“In grand slams we have one day off and I managed to share a court with the legends yesterday for the 100 year Centre Court celebrations.”
For the game itself, it went, as perhaps predicted in the first set, with service as each player got to grips with the conditions on the grass in the early evening match.
But as is always the case, when it comes to the crunch one player cracks.
That is rarely Rafael Nadal.
And at love 40, Van De Zandschulp and serving, choked, and despite gaining a point, could not save his serve and Nadal powered home a winner down the line to take the first set in 44 minutes.
The second seed raced to a 2-0 second set lead, breaking the Dutchman to love with terrific returns and forcing Van de Zandschulp into too many unforced errors. Van de Zandschulp stemmed the tide somewhat by holding his serve to make it 3-1 to Nadal.
Games went with serve with little to spark the enthusiasm of the crowd, but when at 2-5 down and 15, 40, Van de Zandschulp was facing a second set defeat.
The Dutchman saved a point with an ace, the forced Nadal to hit long, with a delicate backhand down the line.
But a needless long ball of his own gave Nadal a second set point. This time, the choke was well in evidence, and on his second serve, Nadal hit a low return, and Van De Zandschulp smacked the ball into the net.
If the game was not to be come a procession, Van de Zandschulp needed to produce something he hadn’t done yet, break Nadal.
Incredibly, he did that in first game in the third set. Nadal looked slightly ponderous on his serve and struggled to hold back the powerful returns of the Dutchman.
But just as the still packed Centre Court crowd were settling into a potential long night, up popped Nadal with a special game to break Van de Zandschulp to 15 to restore service parity.
Nadal at breakpoint in the sixth game produced a magnificent clipped backhand top spin drive across court to flummox his opponent and take the vital game that put him within two games of the quarterfinals.
A regulation game to love by Nadal then put him on the brink of the match.
Could Van de Zandschulp hold his choke and his game?
With the crowd behind him, if only to see one more game, the Dutchman won his game, leaving Nadal to serve out the game for the set and match.
Much to the surprise of Nadal The crowd and Van de Zandschulp, Nadal slumped to love 40. An ace brought him a point back, but he still faced two break points. The Dutchman was delighted to see a sliced backhand by Nadal inch just over the service line to extend the set.
Services were won by each player and it fell to Van de Zandschulp to hold his next one to take the match to a tie-breaker.
Which he did.
Nadal held his single point in the breaker, and then produced a powerhouse of a backhand, top spin drive to go 2-0 up. Van de Zandschulp notched one back, before Nadal overhit a simple drive to make it 2-2. Nadal then made it 3-2 on his two point serve. The longest rally of the game came at a vital point in the match giving Nadal a 4-2 lead. Then an unforced error by Van de Zandschulp made it 5-2 with Nadal’s serves to come.
He got one back to 5-3 before he whacked one well wide, leaving Nadal with match point after two hours and 17 minutes.
But the Spaniard hit the ball into the net before Van de Zandschulp won his point.
Nadal served at 6-5 to win. He hit his first serve into the net, before sending a cross court shot long and wide.
Nadal then made it 7-6 despite a call by Van de Zandschulp that the serve was long.
Another match point for Nadal was squandered when a lob by him saw Van de Zandschulp smash the ball wide.
But he didn’t make and error with the next point which was the breaker, set and match winner.
Top picture Nadal v Zandschulp Picture: Paul Lagan