World #1 Rafael Nadal will continue his bid to claim a third Roland Garros and Wimbledon double when he takes on Kazakhstan’s Mikhail Kukushkin. Only Bjorn Borg has completed the Channel Slam more times than Nadal, but the Spaniard hasn’t won Wimbledon since 2010 and has failed to advance beyond the fourth round since losing in the final in 2011. This is the fourth time that Kukushkin has reached the second round at Wimbledon, but he has only gone further once. Who will come out on top?
Nadal and Kukushkin have met three times so far in their careers and Nadal has claimed all three wins. Their first match came eight years ago in Thailand in the quarterfinals where Nadal was a comfortable 6-3 6-2 winner. He then crushed Kukushkin 6-1 6-1 in 2012 in Monte Carlo. Their most recent meeting was at Wimbledon in the third round four years ago. Kukushkin won the first set in a tiebreak, but thereafter couldn’t lay a glove on Nadal who won through 6-7 6-1 6-1 6-1.
Path to the second round
Understandably after the mental and physical toll taken on Nadal in the successful pursuit of an 11th Roland Garros crown, the Spaniard withdrew from his only scheduled grass court warm up tournament at Queen’s. That meant he took to the grass courts for the first time competitively this season against Israel’s Dudi Sela in a match that proved entertaining, if not hugely competitive. Sela resisted doggedly at times, but too many unforced errors cost him as Nadal won 6-3 6-3 6-2.
Kukushkin’s Wimbledon preparations included a trip to Queen’s, where he lost in the first round of qualifying to Tim Smyczek and a run to the Eastbourne semifinals which included a three set win over British #1 Kyle Edmund. His Wimbledon began against Vasek Pospisil, who won the doubles title with Jack Sock in 2014 and reached the quarterfinals in 2015. But those are distant days for the man now ranked 97th in the world and Kukushkin dispatched him in four, 6-4 3-6 6-2 6-3.
How do they match up?
Nadal’s game is far better suited to clay than it is grass, with the efficacy of his topspin forehand in particular somewhat negated by the surface. But he is still Rafael Nadal and a formidable opponent anywhere. Against Sela he was striking the ball with real venom, and the Israeli was largely unable to cope. His athleticism was, as ever, hugely impressive and the Spaniard demonstrated the same willingness to come to the net and sureness of touch in the forecourt that helped him to win two Wimbledon titles.
Kukushkin lacks Nadal’s weaponry and defensive skills, but the Kazakh is unquestionably a capable player in his own right. His forehand is his best shot, and he generally strikes it without much topspin, a high-risk high-reward strategy. He is also confident taking on his backhand, but against the whipping topspin of Nadal he may struggle slightly off that wing. His serve is effective enough, and he made an impressive 77% of his first serves against Pospisil, winning 80% of the points behind it.
Kukushkin gave Nadal something of a scare by going big from the outset when they last met at Wimbledon and one suspects he will follow the same gameplan this time around. But there is a huge difference between keeping that up for one set and keeping it up for three. That was Kukushkin’s undoing in 2014 and it will be his undoing again this year. He may have enough to take a set off Nadal, but the upset will prove beyond him. Nadal in four.