The most-asked question at Wimbledon – okay, the second-most-asked after “Who’s going to win the W*rld C*p?” – is to remind the players of The Greatest Tennis Match Ever and inquire as to whether they’d like a repeat this year.
Rafael Nadal vs Roger Federer in the men’s final of 2008 was indeed a classic and Nadal kept his side of the bargain for the dream re-run by following his great rival into the third round with a 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Kazakhstan’s Mikhail Kukushkin.
Straight-sets, straightforward? Not really. Kukushkin was a tricky, wiry, inventive and bold opponent, something the No 1 seed acknowledged afterwards. “He played very well so it was a really tough match. I couldn’t make many mistakes.”
The match got off to a rip-roaring start. We may not see a better opening game the rest of this Wimbledon. It was an exhibition of power, precision and – from Kukushkin – high adventure with his cross-court forehand pegging back Nadal and causing early flusterment on the great Spaniard’s serve. Kukushkin eventually conceded the game, but only after ten absorbing minutes. This was shaping up to be the match of this tournament if Kukushkin with his plastered-on Action Man haircut could maintain his dash and daring.
Maybe he couldn’t. Nadal broke him and then seemed to get his serve going. Kukushkin’s serve was fluffy next to it, but then many are. The No 77 seed remembered what he did right on the ground in the first game, however, and got the break back.
When he hit a winner, and there were plenty, Kukushkin would raise a salute to the players’ box and get one right back from his wife Anastasia, also his coach. The arrangement must be handy but presumably there have to be strict rules: no work-chat after 9pm when the couple settle down to watch their boxsets and absolutely no pillow-talk about the best kind of insoles for hard courts.
Mrs K must have been pleased with her man’s display though she might have wondered how many chances Nadal would allow him, such as in the often-pivotal seventh game when he stuttered again but eventually prevailed.
Kukushkin presented a slightly scrawny contrast to the muscle-plated figure across the net but, again, there was no shame in that. Nadal must make many men feel inadequate. The Kazak wasn’t intimidated by the high bounce Nadal achieved on his returns, and would leap and skelp with confidence and control.
Nadal wasn’t playing brilliantly but he was still Nadal. If you’re 77th-ranked you must seize your opportunities, and give him hardly anything back. Kukushkin offered set point with a double fault and, well, you can guess the rest.
The players maintained the quality level. The best-contested point climaxed with a thunderous Nadal smash and unfortunately for Kukushkin led to him being broken again. After that Kukushkin suffered a dip. The searing forehand started finding the net.
Was Kukushkin done? Passing up five break points early in the third set suggested he was. Nadal’s defence was as strong as that of any one of Spain’s walled cities. Kukushkin wasn’t finished, magicking the shot of the match with a ridiculously angled volley. But: the sequel is on.