Rafael Nadal returns to Marin Cilic during their match at The Aspall Tennis Classic tournament in London on Wednesday. Agence France-Presse
Rafa Nadal received a degree of sympathy this week when he questioned a Wimbledon seedings formula that relegated him down to third in this year’s draw despite a world ranking of two.
After all, he has been champion there twice, is bang in form after a record-stretching 12th French Open, is injury free and last year was a whisker away from reaching the final.
Despite that, the 33-year-old would be the first to admit that despite twice lifting the trophy the All England Club’s lawns have not always been a happy hunting ground.
While his 2008 defeat of Roger Federer in a final for the ages stands as one of his greatest days, shock losses at the hands of Steve Darcis, Lucas Rozol, Dustin Brown and Gilles Muller represent some of his darkest moments.
Wimbledon’s low bouncing lawns also provide the ultimate test of the creaky knees that disrupted Nadal’s season this year and forced him to withdraw from Miami.
It is why Nadal’s excitement is tempered by a little trepidation every time he heads to his most erratic Grand Slam and why there is a sense of unfinished business.
After backing up his 2008 triumph by beating Tomas Berdych in the 2010 final and reaching the final again in 2011 — Nadal then went five visits without going past the fourth round.
Those dismissing his grasscourt prowess were forced to eat humble pie last year when Nadal roared through to the semi-finals when he lost 8-6 in the fifth set to Novak Djokovic in one of the highest-quality matches ever seen on Centre Court.
Nadal has again opted to play no competitive grasscourt matches in the build-up to Wimbledon, preferring instead to practise in Mallorca and then take part in the Aspall Classic exhibition event at the swanky Hurlingham Club where on Wednesday he was soundly beaten by Marin Cilic.
Not that Cilic was reading too much into that and even suggested Nadal could be favorite to win the title and match Bjorn Borg’s record of winning Wimbledon immediately after winning the French on three occasions.
“I know I played a great event last year. I have been able to be very close to win another title there. I love to play on grass,” he said shortly after claiming his 18th Grand Slam title by defeating Dominic Thiem in Paris.
“Honestly, the last two years that I played in Wimbledon, I felt close again.”
Meanwhile, with the burden of being world number one lifted, Naomi Osaka will set her sights on Wimbledon, buoyed by the support of Roger Federer and praying for a decent draw this year.
The 21-year-old Japanese star saw her hopes of a third consecutive Grand Slam title end in a dispiriting third round exit at Roland Garros.
She admitted that loss to Katerina Siniakova, ranked 42 at the time, was “the best thing that could have happened” for a player so uncomfortable in the spotlight.
Since then, she has lost her top ranking and will head into Wimbledon next week seeded at number two.
Osaka could not be more thrilled.
“During my entire clay season, it kind of mattered and it showed because I was kind of stressed out the entire time,” she said when asked about the intense scrutiny which came with being the world’s top player who was hunting a Paris title to add to her US and Australian Open crowns.
“Now, I’m just kind of having fun. I’m kind of chilling.”
At the French Open, Osaka complained that the pressures she faced were causing her to suffer constant headaches, stress and fatigue.
However, when the Wimbledon draw is made on Friday, more headaches could be on the way.
Her last two trips to the All England Club have ended in back-to-back third round losses against players at ease on grass courts.
In 2017, she was defeated by five-time champion Venus Williams who went on to reach the final.
Last year, she fell to eventual champion Angelique Kerber with Osaka collecting just six games against the German on Centre Court.