Lukas Rosol channels Sampras, Laver and Federer versus Rafael Nadal

ColumnSportsTennisRafael NadalWimbledon ChampionshipsRod LaverFrench Open
At Wimbledon, Lukas Rosol is Sampras/Gonzalez/Laver/Federer in match against Rafael Nadal
Against Rafael Nadal, Lukas Rosol plays like a man possessed (by Pete Sampras, maybe)
Rafael Nadal is taken to the limit in victory over Lukas Rosol

The player who walked onto Centre Court at Wimbledon Thursday afternoon to face Rafael Nadal looked a lot like Lukas Rosol of the Czech Republic.

He was 6-feet-5, around 180 pounds and most of the back of his left calf was covered with a tattoo.

Some in the packed crowd recognized him from two years ago, when he beat Nadal, who then, as now, was among the best and most-feared players in the world.

It had been Rosol's tennis moment in the sun. He has had few of them. After beating Nadal, he lost in the next round, which is almost a take-it-to-the-bank tennis bet after major upsets.

He will turn 29 in three weeks, has one title on the main pro tour, has never gotten past the third round of a major, and has slightly less than $2 million in earnings in 12 years of trying. His highest ranking was No. 33. That was last year. It is No. 52 now.

Nadal was No. 1, world-ranked and seeded that way here.

Still, there was a little buzz as the crowd settled in. Some remembered the upset in 2012. More knew the ever-present dangers awaiting each big name in this big event. Centre Court crowds here know their tennis. Many have held tickets since well before they put that nifty roof over the top. They dress to their stature — fashionable skirts and dresses for the ladies, more suits and ties than a funeral for men.

Before the first ball was hit in the match, there was a serious feel to things. Nadal entered to a big cheer, then did his usual all-out sprint to the baseline for the warmup after the coin toss. Interestingly, Rosol mimicked his sprint.

Nadal's body language was vintage Rafa in full focus. He is obsessively fidgity, a slave to routine.

At his courtside spot, with bottles of liquid within reach, he sits and sips, wiggles and jiggles. When he takes a sip, the bottle must be replaced in exactly the same spot it came from, lined up perfectly next to the other bottle.

Before he starts, or after a break in play, he takes two towels to the ball kids, one in each corner behind him. They don't dare come and get the towels. He delivers them. First one side, then the other.

Then, after a couple of tugs on his shorts, he is ready. The more strict the routine, the more ready he is. And the routine was full of focus Thursday.

But little did anybody know, especially Nadal, that the guy across the net just looked like Lukas Rosol. He was actually, on this overcast day, part Pete Sampras, part Pancho Gonzales, part Rod Laver, part Roger Federer.

Nadal, having been on the receiving end of so much bounty hunting, so many go-for-broke-with-nothing-to-lose opponents, learned quickly what he was facing.

"Every match is so difficult here," he said afterward. "Especially when you play against players that they, yeah, really decide to play every shot full power, with serve, with forehand, with backhand."

And so it was.

In the first two sets, Rosol hit 11 aces, won his first-serve point 88% of the time, consistently served around 130 mph, made one of his only two double faults with a 126 mph second serve and had 35 winners. He was a machine. He wrong-footed Nadal so often that the Spanish superstar was having trouble knowing his right from his left.

Nadal, of course, is nothing if not stubborn and competitive. You don't get 14 major titles on your resume by not fighting hard for everything, especially when nine of them are at the French Open, the Citadel of tennis grinding.

"I played a bad game in that 4-all and I lost the first set," Nadal said. "I think, until that moment, I was playing better than him, but didn't have chances on the return because he was serving so well."

Not only did Nadal lose the first set, his serve was broken in the fourth game of the second set and he trailed, 4-1. There was a hush among the dresses and coats and ties. Good competition is fine here at SW19, but loss of star power does not build upon the overall Wimbledon legend desired.

Would 2012 be happening again? Would it lead to more Wimbledon downers for Nadal, who came back after the Rosol loss and lost last year to then-No. 135 Steve Darcis in the first round?

But then, Nadal is not Nadal without reason. He may have been facing Lukas (Sampras/Gonzales/Laver/Federer) Rosol, but he wasn't backing down.

He battled back, managed his first break point at exactly the one-hour point and soon was in a pressure-packed tiebreaker.

Rosol got it to 6-5 and set point with a 125-mph first serve. Nadal saved that with a huge forehand winner to 6-6.

"The difference is maybe one point," Nadal said.

He served the next point, won it for 7-6 with a 107-mph placement, and the balls went to Rosol to serve.

And suddenly, Sampras/Gonzalez/Laver/Federer disappeared. Now, it was only Lukas Rosol. And when his 92-mile-an-hour second serve hit the net, it was over.

Not just the second set. The match.

The tide had turned. Nobody is better at finding the opening and running through it than Nadal. He won, 4-6, 7-6 (6), 6-4, 6-4.

"If he plays well," Nadal said, "he is difficult for everybody, not just me."

Deep inside, he knew he was talking about Lukas (Sampras/Gonzalez/Laver/Federer) Rosol.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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ColumnSportsTennisRafael NadalWimbledon ChampionshipsRod LaverFrench Open