Nadal looking for grass redemption

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LONDON -- For a two-time Wimbledon champion and No. 1 player in the world, Rafael Nadal is doing a good impression of a plucky underdog.

Just getting through the first round at Wimbledon is seen as something of a victory. Was taking four sets to do it a problem? No, it was a minor achievement. His second-round match against Lukas Rosol is being treated as a major showdown, even though the Czech is ranked outside the top 50 and has only one career win against a top-five player.

Except that one win was against Nadal in the second round at Wimbledon two years ago.

There isn't even much talk about Nadal's potential meeting with Roger Federer in the semifinals, no assumption that both will navigate their way through the field. But going two seasons without winning a grass-court match will do that to a player's standing, even if that player is Nadal.

Nadal's second-round exit against Rosol in 2012 was followed by a first-round defeat against Steve Darcis last year. Two weeks ago, Nadal dropped his opening match on grass at Halle to Dustin Brown. That adds up to three straight defeats on grass against three relatively modest players, giving Rafa a diminished presence on the surface.

How much is expectation lacking at this year's tournament? Nadal, who normally resists any attempt to name him as a favorite, is having to talk himself up.

"It's true that for the last couple of years I didn't play a lot of matches on grass, but I am confident that I can do it again," Nadal said before the Championships began. "I am not talking about winning, but talking about playing better than what I did the last couple of years on grass."

Given his recent results, that's not exactly setting a high standard. But it's not surprising that Nadal has less ambitious goals at Wimbledon than elsewhere. Despite returning to dominance on both clay and hard courts, he has yet to make an impact on grass since his comeback from a left knee injury in 2012. At this event, Nadal is not only taking on his opponents but also the surface, the timing and his injuries.

The grass, which keeps the ball low and rewards attacking play, counteracts his topspin and tendency to work the point before trying to win it. The Spaniard has been able to successfully overcome this hurdle, though, winning the tournament in 2008 and 2010 and reaching the final in 2006, '07 and '11. Only a right knee injury in 2009 interrupted the run.

Those Wimbledon accomplishments have always followed one of Nadal's nine French Open victories -- like the one just a couple of weeks ago -- requiring a quick turnaround after a long and successful clay-court campaign in which he usually plays more than anyone else. The switch to grass tends to be hard on knees and backs, two injuries Nadal has recently been contending with.

In 2012, he played with the injured knee at Wimbledon and then did not return to the tour for seven months. A year ago, he was taking anti-inflammatories and playing through the throbbing, which he says left him emotionally drained by Wimbledon.

"I knew my knee was not perfect yet, and grass is very aggressive for my knee because I need to play very low," he told the Independent, noting that things have improved. "The feeling this year is better with my knee. I feel a little more comfortable running, and that's very important."

He demonstrated that during one exchange in the first round, slipping and then getting up and traversing both sidelines to win the point. But if the knee is less of a problem, this season he has also had to contend with his back, which affected his title match at the Australian Open and the first two rounds of the French Open. At Halle, Nadal acknowledged that it was still a slight issue and did not go on court again until the Wednesday before Wimbledon.

"I needed a few days off for my back after a lot of stress in Roland Garros," he said.

Since then, he has been training harder than usual to get used to the surface. The back has prevented him from practicing his serve at times this season and limited his serving during matches. On top of all that, Nadal is in a packed section of the draw at this year's tournament, with players like Richard Gasquet, Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori, who was in a winning position against Nadal at Madrid before retiring with injury.

So Nadal has plenty to contend with this fortnight, though he isn't letting that get to him.

"I am going to try to play well," he said. "I am going to try to play with the best attitude that I have."

He is aware that it is winning that will restore his reputation.

"Everybody remembers the victories," he said. "Eight first rounds in a row and then you arrive to Wimbledon and you win Wimbledon; nobody will remember about that you played bad. Everybody will remember about your victory in Wimbledon."

But with his two most recent defeats at this tournament, Nadal is finding it hard to get others to recall anything else.

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