The World no.1 Rafael Nadal advanced to the third round at the 2018 Wimbledon, defeating Mikhail Kukushkin 6-4, 6-3, 6-4. He will now face Australian #Next-Gen star, Alex De Minaur.
The Kazakh of Russian origin is a decent grass court player, he reached the semifinals in Eastbourne just a week before Wimbledon (defeated De Minaur, Ferrer and Edmund, lost to Mischa Zverev). Kukushkin also reached the third round at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (which is the venue the third Grand Slam of the season is held at) in 2014, losing to none other than Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard lost the opening set in a tie-break, but managed to storm through the next three sets losing just a game per set. That opener was the only set Kukushkin took off Nadal in their three previous meetings.
This happened the last time they played:
After capturing his 11th French Open title at the beginning of June, Rafael Nadal decided to skip Queen’s Club where he was supposed to warm-up before Wimbledon and chose to appear in an exhibition tournament in Hurlingham (defeated Matthew Ebden, lost to Lucas Pouille). Despite being a former 2-time champion at the event (2008, 2010), his recent Wimbledon performances weren’t really encouraging – he hasn’t reached the quarter-finals since 2011 and all his four losses between the years 2012 and 2015 came to players ranked outside the top 100. Nonetheless, he was still a huge favorite coming into his second round encounter against Mikhail Kukushkin.
From the beginning of the match, it seemed like Kukushkin might actually have a chance to fight here. The Kazakh had three break point chances in the opening game, converting none of them. His tactics revolved around hitting deep into Nadal’s backhand. The thing that decided the outcome of a lot of points early was the Kazakh’s inability to attack the net. After some extremely well placed flat balls he simply hesitated and didn’t decide to try to finish the points off there. The tactic of hitting flat, deep shots into Nadal’s backhand wasn’t bad but it requires a lot of net play to work.
Despite these limitations of his game, Kukushkin was able to get another two break points in the fifth game and broke back hitting a wonderful backhand return to Rafa’s forehand side. That was what got him the break – he surprised Nadal by suddenly attacking to his theoretically “better” shot. He also played the next game brilliantly, holding to love. After the first two games, I was sure it’s gonna be just one another boring match where the favorite crushes the underdog. Suddenly, it took a very interesting turn. Kukushkin couldn’t keep up playing at that level though and faltered when serving to stay in the set, losing it four games to six.
It’s hard to determine what Nadal was struggling with – the courts seem to be higher-bouncing than in the last few years, which should favor him because it doesn’t require bending the knees so much. However, the level he showed in the first set wasn’t really good and it allowed Kukushkin to make some inroads. As expected, the Spaniard was getting better and better after winning the first set and the Kazakh couldn’t dictate the points as easily as he did in the opener. Nadal lost just four points on serve in the second set and took it 6-3.
Kukushkin raised his level and finally managed to break Nadal on his seventh break point of the third set and managed to go up 3-1. He couldn’t consolidate though, making a few uncharacteristic forehand errors to get broken back instantly. Meanwhile, the Kazakh also managed to win one of the rallies of the tournament:
The last and deciding break of this match came at 4-4 when Nadal marvelously run around his backhand to force an error from Kukushkin and serve for the match. The Spaniard took it with a hold to 30.
Nadal will definitely need to raise his level, because the way he played today a good grass court specialist might be able to expose him. However, his draw is almost cupcake as Federer’s one – at least until the quarters. Then it gets very tough and with this form, the Spaniard will struggle. What will help is that the more the grass wears out, the more it suits Nadal. As for Kukushkin, a good match in terms of groundstrokes, but to achieve more success on grass he has to start using net play, you can’t beat Nadal at Wimbledon coming to the net 9 times and winning just three of those points! The Kazakh also took just 2 of his 13 break points, but it was mostly due to the Spaniard raising his level under pressure I’d say.