Nadal rallies to set up Agassi showdown

Rafael Nadal is the No. 2 seed at Wimbledon. Richard Kendrick is ranked 237th in the world, yet Greg Garber writes the smart money today was not on Nadal.

Updated: June 29, 2006, 6:25 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- Rafael Nadal is the No. 2-ranked player in the world and banked a $1,196,700 check for winning the French Open earlier this month. Robert Kendrick, ranked No. 237, took home $7,200 for winning the Forest Hills Challenger in New York back in May.

Heading into their second-round match at Wimbledon, Nadal had won two Grand Slam singles titles, while Kendrick had won a single Grand Slam match in his seven-year career, two days ago over Yen-Hsun Lu.

And yet, the smart money -- believe it or not -- was on Kendrick.

Looking Ahead
Mary Carillo and ESPN.com's Whit Sheppard look ahead to Rafael Nadal's match with Andre Agassi. Podcast

There was a yawning gap between Nadal and the 26-year-old Californian, but the match was played on grass, which suits Kendrick's powerful service game. For Nadal, grass remains a strangely foreign surface. And then there was Kendrick's newfound groove; he had won all 10 sets he played here, including qualifying.

The oddsmakers, however, installed the lanky surfer as a 1-8 underdog. Turns out, the oddsmakers were right. But not by much.

Twice only two points away from winning the match, Kendrick couldn't close the deal and Nadal escaped with a 6-7 (4), 3-6, 7-6 (2), 7-5, 6-4 victory that required 3 hours and 46 minutes -- and all of his resolve.

And so, the most anticipated early-round match in the tournament -- Nadal against Andre Agassi -- will come to pass on Saturday. Nadal knows the crowd will be heavily against him.

"I understand perfect," Nadal said. "[This] is his last Wimbledon. I hope I'm going to have more. [It's] normal, no?

"Exciting match. Nice match for me. A nice match for everybody."

While Nadal was in the process of winning a record 60 straight matches on clay in places like Monte Carlo, Rome and Paris, Kendrick has been touring such garden spots as Kissimmee, Fla., Joplin, Mo., Busan, Korea, and Yuba City, Calif. This year, he has played three Futures tournaments -- the Double-A of tennis -- and eight Challengers, which equates to Triple-A.

Kendrick has reached the semifinals in two ATP events -- San Jose in 2004 and Delray Beach in 2003 -- but had played only two ATP-level matches this year, breaking even. His two previous appearances in Grand Slams led to losses in the first round.

But this time, Kendrick blew through three qualifying matches and obliterated Lu in the first round. The funny thing? Against Nadal, he just kept on rolling. He served and volleyed. He went for his shots, steadily worked his way to the net and went for the lines on his serve. He even went for his second serve. Kendrick, ridiculously composed, won the first two sets -- and didn't seem overly surprised.

"He's serving unbelievable," Nadal said. "I'm playing well, but losing."

Said Kendrick, "[I] just kept telling myself, 'It's a tennis court -- just like all the other ones I've been playing on.'"

There was even a Boris Beckeresque, full-extension, diving backhand volley that lifted Kendrick into a third-set tiebreaker. That was when the first sign of nerves surfaced. At 1-all, he had an open court but bunted a backhand volley into the top of the net.

"He hit so much spin on his ball, it's hard to tell if it's going to drop in," Kendrick said. "I just wanted to make sure. I kind of stopped my feet. Just hit the tape, didn't go my way."

Nadal won the tiebreaker going away and it ended with one of his signature soaring, twisting, fist-pumping "Vamos Chico!" displays.

The match turned on two points in the fourth set -- the two occasions Kendrick was within two points of winning. At 30-all, Nadal applied the pressure and was rewarded with an overhead winner. At deuce, a Nadal forehand whistled cleanly past Kendrick. The crowd and Kendrick both thought the ball was long, but Wimbledon does not employ an instant replay system.

Thus, Nadal won the set, and effectively, the match, because Kendrick was tiring. The match was already more than three hours long, and Kendrick had played only one previous five-set match in his career. His serve -- which delivered 28 aces -- understandably, began to sag. Nadal broke Kendrick in the fifth game, and it held up.

"I knew he wasn't going to give up," Kendrick said. "He's just got so much fight in him. If I could just close it out here with a few more returns, I think, you know, different story."

Bring on Agassi.

"Do I give him any chance?" Kendrick asked. "Of course, yeah. He's Rafael Nadal."

"I know he won here," Nadal said. "He has [a] very good level here. But I am in the third round, too."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.