Two lines on a Covid test proved devastating for Matteo Berrettini on Tuesday morning but for at least half a dozen players in the bottom half of the men’s singles draw, including the former champion Rafael Nadal, the chance of a run all the way to the final next week improved significantly with the bookies’ second-favourite removed from the reckoning.
Nadal, the winner in 2008 and 2010, has not reached the final since 2011, and there were moments in his four-set defeat of Francisco Cerúndolo on Centre Court on Tuesday when a first-round exit, for only the second time in his Wimbledon career, felt a good deal more plausible than a run into the second week.
This was the No 2 seed’s first match here since losing in the semi-finals in 2019, and Nadal’s ongoing issues with a foot problem had also prevented him getting his eye in for the grass after his win in the French Open at Roland Garros last month.
Cerúndolo, ranked No 41 in the world and making his Wimbledon debut, arrived on court with just one win on grass to his name but armed with a steely determination to make his 36-year-old opponent think and move as much as possible. He mixed drop shots with returns that landed right at the Spaniard’s feet, finding the baseline with impressive regularity and thumping down several forehand winners for good measure.
Nadal was in need of a nudge to move up a notch, and he got it in what proved to be a decisive ninth game. A weak second serve at 15-30 was duly punished to leave him facing two break points, but he saved both with first-serve winners. He saved another two points later in the same way, and got the hold with a fourth booming serve that did not give his opponent any hope of a response.
The No 2 seed then rode the momentum into the 10th game, breaking Cerúndolo’s serve for a second time at the second attempt to take the set 6-4, and on into the second set.
A straightforward success beckoned as Nadal closed it out 6-3, but Cerúndolo responded brilliantly, taking the third set 6-3 and building up a head of steam of his own which took him a break up in the fourth.
Suddenly, every one of Nadal’s service games was a struggle, including an extended third game which went to five deuces and, eventually, the Argentinian’s way.
When Nadal went 0-40 down on serve soon afterwards, a decisive moment loomed, but again it was the jolt he needed to roar back into life. Cerúndolo saw a series of unreturnable first serves as the former champion secured the hold, and then several forehands of similar quality as his own serve slipped away soon afterwards.
From 4-4, Cerúndolo’s body language told the story of a match that was slipping away, and a final, limp service game enabled Nadal to ease into the second round.
“Being honest, he played at a very high level for such a long time,” Nadal said afterwards. “Normally he has a great forehand but the backhand today on his side was great.
“Positive thing, I finished the match playing well. The last couple of games I raise up my level without a doubt. Of course, there is an important room to keep improving but I am sure this match is going to help.”
Having secured his place in round two, Nadal saw his half of the draw open up a little more as Felix Auger-Aliassime, the No 6 seed and a quarter-finalist in 2021, went out in four sets against Maxime Cressy.
Cressy, a rare serve-volleyer on the modern circuit, was the beaten finalist at Eastbourne this month and one of the worst possible draws for any seed in this year’s tournament. Auger-Aliassime took the first of four close-fought sets on a tie-break but lost the next three, including two more tie-breaks in the third and fourth sets.
The remaining seeds in Nadal’s half progressed with varying degrees of difficulty. Diego Schwartzman (12), Taylor Fritz (11) and Roberto Bautista Agut (17), a semi-finalist in 2019, eased through in straight sets but Stefanos Tsitsipas (4) and Denis Shapovalov (17) needed four and five sets respectively to reach round two.

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