It was worth the wait as Rafael Nadal finally discovered his scintillating best to thrill Wimbledon on Saturday evening. But a breathtaking display, discarding Lorenzo Sonego (6-1, 6-2, 7-6) in a little over two hours, ended with simmering tension between the players. A blushing Nadal swiftly played down any lingering animosity towards the Italian, refuting claims of a “spicy” edge to the match and conceding he was “sorry if I bothered him”.
But the momentary fallout should not cloud what was a statement victory and enough to spark excitement at an epic final with favourite Novak Djokovic. The Serbian’s form has been ominous, but Nadal has well and truly shaken off the rust. Indeed, he has been quick to emphasise his three-year absence from SW19 after each round, conscious of the challenge to adjust.
This was a more ruthless Nadal, banishing any lingering concerns after being made to work over four sets against Ričardas Berankis in the last round. Here he capitalised on Sonego’s nerves as he graced perhaps the most daunting of stages in this sport.
A breathless pace established and a first set in just 28 minutes, Sonego, looking to match a career-best fourth round at SW19 achieved last year, was quickly forced to dig deep into his box of tricks. Out came the tweener as Nadal found his touch with the lob. But the Spaniard wouldn’t let up and after saving one breakpoint early in the second, a moment of brilliance from the 22-time Grand Slam champion arrived: a trademark whipped forehand cross court passed the onrushing Sonego at the net.
A first game of the second for the 27th seed arrived at 4-0, with the Centre Court crowd showing pity with a chorus of “Forza Lorenzo” reverberating around the court. Pure relief was painted across Sonego’s face after moving to 4-1 with the 27-year-old encouraging the crowd to ramp up the volume, a tactic that would have consequences.
But Nadal was in an unforgiving mood; a scooped backhand at 5-2 sailed up high but dipped viciously, leaving a motionless Sonego helpless and forced to digest the predicament of a two-set hole.
Such was Nadal’s game that Sonego started adding real venom to his strokes in pursuit of inspiration. It was not enough though with one mistimed forehand ballooning so high it would have touched the roof had it been on. Loud cheers for a smart catch in the crowd that would not have looked out of place at Edgbaston earlier in the day, but Nadal had another early break with no signs of his relentless mood letting up.
Should Nadal prevail here next week to add to his 2008 and 2010 victories, it will be due to his comfort at either slugging it out deep or sensing the opportunity to change the tempo at the net.
Sonego soon discovered the latter to be true after executing a fine lob, with Nadal hurrying back and spinning in the air before sending a backhand smash back to the other side of the court. The ball bounced off Sonego’s racket, raised more to act as protection than any genuine attempt at a return.
With the finish line in sight, the roof did indeed come on after an hour and 40 minutes as light diminished. And Sonego returned reinvigorated, capitalising on the break in momentum to punch down an ace, letting out a cry in delight to hold serve and narrow the deficit to 4-3.
The Italian leaned into the partisan nature of the crowd, inspiring the biggest cheer of the night by passing Nadal at the net and spinning on his back in exhaustion. Two pure winners ensued and Nadal cracked on the first of three break points to bring parity in the third set and renewed hope of the late night those in attendance craved.
Nadal was evidently flustered and exchanged choice words with his opponent at the net, leaving Sonego to engage in a deep debate with the umpire. The emotions bubbling over seemed to light a fire inside Nadal, who hit back immediately and seizing the break he had lost moments earlier with a clubbed backhand.
Nadal then quickly served out the match, dashing any more hopes of more Sonego heroics to set up a last 16 contest with Botic van de Zandschulp. There’s a potential quarter-final against the winner of qualifier Jason Kubler and 11th seed Taylor Fritz, but this was the type of form to renew hopes of a dream final back at the All England Club.