In a battle that pits one of the sport’s most venerable elder statesman against a rising star of whom much is expected, Rafael Nadal takes on Alex De Minaur. The Spanish world #1 recently claimed his 17th Grand Slam at the French Open, but will be desperate for another taste of Wimbledon success having failed to advance beyond the fourth round since making the 2011 final. De Minaur was only twelve then, but his rise this year has been one of the stories of the season. Who will come out on top?
Perhaps unsurprisingly given De Minaur’s youth, the pair have never met competitively before. But a gulf bigger than their 13 year age difference separates them. Whilst Nadal has 905 career victories to his name and 79 titles, two of which were won at Wimbledon, De Minaur has only played 27 matches at Tour-level, winning 13. This is Nadal’s 13th Wimbledon, and his 53rd Grand Slam overall. For De Minaur it is only a sixth main draw at a Major and a first Wimbledon.
Path to the third round
Nadal withdrew from Queen’s suffering from understandable fatigue after going all the way for the 11th time at Roland Garros. But he looked rejuvenated and sharp in his first round match, which saw him take on Israel’s Dudi Sela. Sela showed flashes of fine play at times, but could not keep it up long enough to sustain a serious challenge and he lost 3-6 3-6 2-6. His second round opponent, Mikhail Kukushkin, ran into the same problem, with the Kazakh fighting hard but missing too often as Nadal won 6-4 6-3 6-4.
De Minaur, who fell in the second round of qualifying last year but this season received direct entry, began his Wimbledon campaign against recent French Open semifinalist Marco Cecchinato. The Italian upset a host of big names in Paris, most notably Djokovic, but was overcome in four sets by the teenager with De Minaur beating him 6-4 6-7 7-6 6-4. De Minaur then accounted for Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert to reach the third round at a Major for the first time a 6-2 6-7 7-5 6-3 winner.
How do they match up?
Nadal is one of the best defensive players the sport has ever produced, but in order to keep progressing at Wimbledon he will need to rely on his offensive capabilities. Fortunately, these are far from lacking. His best shot is his forehand, which is rightly legendary, but his backhand is dangerous as well, particularly when he steps in to rip it cross-court. His volleys are also impressive, and the Spaniard has played well at the net so far this year at Wimbledon.
De Minaur has already shown impressive all-court aptitude early in his career. The Australian’s game is well-suited to grass, particularly because of his aggressive returning, which should serve him well against Nadal. His groundstrokes are solid and he moves well, but all areas of his game will receive a stern examination at the hands of Nadal, probably more so than he has faced previously. But this is also surely exactly the sort of challenge De Minaur would have been dreaming of.
This match is far from a sure thing for Nadal. De Minaur has all the tools to seriously extend the Spaniard. But the sun-dried Wimbledon courts are less slick than they usually are and the ball is bouncing higher, which means Nadal can move more comfortably and do more damage with his forehand than in recent years. That, and his experience on the big stage, will be enough to see him past De Minaur after a four-set battle.