Nadal marches on

Rafael Nadal started slowly again but the prospect of a Wimbledon upset was swiftly doused as poor Mikhail Kukushkin felt the full force of the Spaniard at his best.

Rafael Nadal, pictured, defeated Mikhail Kukushkin 6-7 (4/7) 6-1 6-1 6-1 under the Centre Court roof
Rafael Nadal, pictured, defeated Mikhail Kukushkin 6-7 (4/7) 6-1 6-1 6-1 under the Centre Court roof

After dropping the opening sets in his earlier matches against Martin Klizan and Lukas Rosol, Nadal astonishingly did the same again against the world number 63 from Kazakhstan.

But his recovery spelt out Nadal's ambition for the week ahead as he sprinted home 6-7 (4/7) 6-1 6-1 6-1 under the Centre Court roof.

Watched from the Royal Box by sporting stars including former Real Madrid star David Beckham, Nadal - a supporter of the Bernabeu giants - finished with his arms aloft, flinging his wristbands and headband into the adoring crowd, and departed with a broad smile across his face.

Three matches in, and it appears Nadal has played himself into peak form, comfortable again on grass after the transition from clay, and unmistakeably in the frame to land what would be his third Wimbledon title.

He made sure of a fourth-round place by ripping a forehand into the left corner, Kukushkin powerless to prevent the obviously superior man in the contest racking up a 41st winner. A particularly frugal 12 unforced errors came from the Nadal racquet.

The 28-year-old from Majorca has done the French Open and Wimbledon double in the same season twice before, and after his ninth Roland Garros triumph earlier this month he expected it would take him time to adjust to the grass.

Once Kukushkin had played well above his station to take the opening set, Nadal was untroubled.

But there might have been real trouble on the very first point.

With the roof having been closed long before they got under way, the increased humidity in what had become effectively an indoor arena meant the grass became slightly more moist than usual.

Nadal, playing a forehand at close to full stretch, took a heavy fall but was back to his feet almost before the crowd had an opportunity to gasp.

They were soon transfixed by what began as a most engaging battle, the flat, swishing forehand of Kukushkin proving a fearsome weapon that left Nadal flat-footed at times.

The little-known 26-year-old, coached by wife Anastasiia, had played Nadal twice previously and not won more than three games in a set, but he twice made the world number one serve to stay in the opener, at 5-4 and 6-5 behind.

Nadal coped with the pressure, and then snatched an early advantage in the tie-break, but that was soon wiped out, and on his second opportunity Kukushkin took set point when a backhand landed long.

It was either the start of something big - memories of Rosol in 2012 and Steve Darcis last year sprang to mind - or Kukushkin had burned himself out with the extraordinary effort he mustered to edge ahead.

The sorry truth for Kukushkin was that he had little left in the tank.

Nadal slipped again in the second game of the second set but he was back on his feet and finally into his stride in the match. He swept through the second and third sets, as Kukushkin proved unable to maintain the high standard he produced in the early stages.

The fourth was a similar story, with Kukushkin in the fifth game stumbling into the awnings behind the baseline, seemingly punch-drunk after being hit with one too many punishing shots.

The end was swift in coming, Nadal through to tackle Nick Kyrgios next.