LONDON (Reuters) - World number one Rafael Nadal pulled back from the abyss to reach the third round at Wimbledon on Thursday just when it looked as though bogeyman Lukas Rosol had returned to haunt him.
Two years after being knocked out at the same stage by the hard-hitting Czech in a late night Centre Court horror show, the Spaniard found himself a point away from falling two sets behind before fighting back to win 4-6 7-6(6) 6-4 6-4.
“Today is another history, another story,” Nadal, who could now use his escape as a springboard towards a third title, told reporters after what had been billed as a grudge match.
“I needed to find the solution. Finally I did.”
If twice former champion Nadal is being made to work overtime so far, women’s favourite Serena Williams, bidding for a sixth singles title at the All England club, and Roger Federer who is chasing a record eighth, have marched through untroubled.
Williams beat South African Chanelle Scheepers 6-1 6-1 and has dropped a mere five games so far while Federer sauntered to a 6-3 7-5 6-3 win over Luxembourg’s Gilles Muller - a match requiring the Centre Court roof after rain arrived late on.
Fifth seed Maria Sharapova completed a good day for former champions, the Russian hurrying past Timea Bacsinszky 6-2 6-1.
“I’m sure happy to get through an extra round than I did last year,” 2004 winner Sharapova, who slipped out in the second round last year, told reporters.
While most of the big names made progress on day four, Australian wildcard Nick Kyrgios provided the biggest shock with an incredible comeback victory over 13th seed Richard Gasquet.
One of several young guns making an impact at the championships, the 19-year-old battled from a two-set deficit against Frenchman, saving nine match points in a cliffhanger decider to seal a 3-6 6-7(4) 6-4 7-5 10-8 victory.
As well as reaching the third round of a slam for the first time, Kyrgios also earned the distinction of saving the most match points by a man at Wimbledon.
Nadal is never more vulnerable than in the early rounds at Wimbledon as he makes the tricky transition from dusty red clay to the low, skidding balls fired at him on fresh green grass.
Feisty Slovakian Martin Klizan proved a handful in the opening round, taking the first set, but Nadal found himself in an even deeper hole on Thursday against the man who sent his world spinning off its axis in 2012.
Rosol’s dramatic five-set win under the Centre Court roof two years ago was the last match Nadal played for seven months as the pain in his battle-scarred knees got the better of him.
This time, with second seed Nadal clearly in much better physical condition, the pattern was ominously familiar as 52nd ranked Rosol came out all guns blazing.
Thundering down aces clocked at over 130mph and making mincemeat of Nadal’s serves at times with some savage returns, Rosol showed the 14-times grand slam champion little respect, rattling through some games in the blink of an eye.
A panicky Nadal succumbed to the onslaught in the ninth game - a double fault and a skewed forehand allowing Rosol to break serve and the Czech then closed the set with a love game.
Rosol, who has two speeds - hard and very hard - continued pinning Nadal back in the second set and seemed to have the 14-times grand slam champion at his mercy when he broke Nadal’s serve to love to lead 4-2.
His level dipped slightly, however, and Nadal broke back to level at 4-4. Rosol was not out of bullets and he continued to blaze away in the tiebreak, moving a mini-break ahead and then having a set point at 6-5 on the Nadal serve which the Spaniard saved with a whipped forehand winner.
A Rosol double-fault gifted a relived Nadal the set and the Mallorcan punched his fist towards his coach and uncle Toni before moving up a gear and into the third round for the first time since 2011.
“The difference maybe is one point,” Nadal, who suffered a first-round loss here last year to Steve Darcis, told reporters.
“Maybe if I lost that set point in the second set, if that forehand down the line went out, maybe I will be sitting here with a loss.”
Ominously for the rest of the players in the bottom half of the draw, which includes Federer, Nadal tends to get stronger and stronger once he finds his feet on grass.
In the last decade, every time he has survived past the second round he has gone on to reach the final, winning the title in 2008 and 2010 and losing in 2006, 2007 and 2011.
“It’s the best level I played on grass for a long time, the last three sets,” he said. “That’s very important news for me.”
Kyrgios, who could play Nadal in the last 16, was not the only player to survive a five-setter on Thursday.
His third-round opponent, young Czech Jiri Vesely, beat French 24th seed Gael Monfils 7-6(3) 6-3 6-7(1) 6-7(3) 6-4 while Monfils’s compatriot Jo-Wilfried Tsonga edged past American Sam Querrey, winning a deciding set hung over from Wednesday 14-12.
Marathon man John Isner, who played the longest match in Wimbledon history in 2010, is the last American man standing.
He won a first-set tiebreak 19-17 - the longest Wimbledon tiebreak since 1973 — against Finn Jarkko Nieminen on his way to a straight sets win.
Two women tipped as outsiders for the title progressed on Thursday with big-serving American Madison Keys beating 31st seed Klara Koukalova 7-5 6-7(3) 6-2 and Canada’s French Open semi-finalist Eugenie Bouchard too good for Silvia Soler Espinosa.
Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar and Clare Lovell