MELBOURNE — Sunday afternoon, Rafael Nadal led a match by one set to love and a service break in the second, only to surrender the break and eventually lose the set. The same thing happened here on Tuesday evening. But while squandering that lead the first time was costly, on this occasion it proved fatal.
It had taken three hours and 47 minutes for Marin Cilic to earn a quarterfinal victory over tennis’ greatest warrior in a difficult way—a technical knockout. As Cilic went up 2-0 in the fifth, Nadal pulled the plug. An injury to his right leg—one that required a trainer visit with Cilic up 4-1 in the fourth—had only gotten worse. Cilic was the winner, 3-6, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 2-0, ret.
Nadal’s pain was vividly clear soon after the match. Just after 11:30 p.m., he hobbled into the media interview room, gingerly lifting his leg to climb a tiny set of stairs and address what had happened.
“Start to feel the muscle little bit tired in the third, but playing normal, no limits, no limitation,” said Nadal. “Then in the fourth at one movement, one drop shot I think, I felt something. At that moment I thought something happened, but I didn't realize how bad, how bad was what's going on in that moment.”
Having suffered an injury of his own at last year’s Wimbledon final versus Roger Federer got underway, Cilic understood what Nadal was going through.
Said Cilic, “In the end very unfortunate because Rafa is always fighting really hard, always giving the best on the court.”
Nadal had earned the first set in trademark fashion. The quality was high, the two in that opener combining for 34 winners. But as usual, Nadal chipped away, his combination of court speed and intensity persistently daring Cilic to try shots that repeatedly flirted with the lines.
Then again, as no less a champion than Federer proved in last year’s Australian Open final, how else other than by using every possible corner of the court can one expect to topple Nadal? Hit too cautiously, and your side of the court becomes a shopping center parking lot, Nadal from the middle battering away with his topspin forehand and flat backhand. Go for too much, and Nadal’s side of the court shrinks, the rents getting higher with each passing point.
Cilic, 1-5 versus Nadal coming into the match, fell into this web at crunch-time of the first set. Serving at 3-4, love-30, Cilic mildly struck a forehand volley that wasn’t solidly deep and hard or cheesily short and soft. This gave Nadal the chance to run forward, pound a backhand pass down the line and earn a trio of break points. Though Cilic fought off one with a 115 mph ace down the middle, at 15-40, he lined an inside-out forehand wide.
Nadal served for it at 5-3. It took a while, but on his third set point, serving in the ad court, Nadal went with the girl who has brought him to so many dances. Wide went the serve. Crosscourt went the return, the situation hardly compelling Cilic to drive it with too much angle. Forward came Nadal, whipping a forehand down the line for a winner. One small, 52-minute step for Nadal. And now, one giant leap for Cilic. Or so it seemed.
Cilic’s mission grew only more complicated when he surrendered his serve at 2-all in the second with a double-fault. Now up 3-2, then holding game points at 40-30 and his ad, all seemed in place for Nadal to crack open the match, putting the kind of distance between himself and Cilic that would make it difficult for the Croatian to strike too boldly. But backhand and forehand winners kept Cilic alive. Aided also by a Nadal double-fault, Cilic soon reached break point and, off an eminently hittable second serve, struck an inside-out forehand winner to level the set at 3-all.
As I witnessed this inside Rod Laver Arena, I conjectured about what Nadal would be thinking at that moment with this imagined quote: “And I have no one to blame but myself."
As I mentioned last week, while every player is more vivid to watch up close, Cilic is particularly aided by proximity. For a man of his size, he is an exceptional mover, sweeping across the court to absolutely brutalize backhands. While there are moments when nerves reduce the shape of his forehand—causing it to go flat and long—a relaxed Cilic heavily envelops his opponents.
Said Cilic, “I was always in that process where I want to keep going with my own game and try to lift up, lift up, keep pushing as much as I can. So extremely pleased with the performance.”
Fond as we are of calling tennis a game of inches, let it be noted that Cilic stands 11 inches taller than Nadal’s prior opponent, Diego Schwartzman. Added to this was a complete change in conditions. Sunday’s match had been the muggy soup of a Midwest summer. This evening, the temperature was at least 20 degrees cooler, the weather associated with a San Francisco evening. All that made it much harder for Nadal to compromise Cilic’s contact point.
The third set was superb. Much of what has long made Nadal a fan favorite surfaced—the whipped topspin forehands and harsh jabs of the backhand most of all. Cilic saved a set point at 4-5 and soon came a tiebreaker. At 5-all, Cilic overcooked a forehand long. From the ad court, Nadal played a beautiful point that conjured up memories of great lefthanders past and present: serve into the forehand, jump on Cilic’s tepid return to strike a down-the-line forehand approach, field the crosscourt pass with a down-the-line backhand volley solid enough to elicit a lob, close with an overhead.
It’s peculiar and even downright disturbing to see a player up two sets to one suffer an injury at such an advantageous stage. Would Nadal have been hurt if he’d maintained his second-set lead? Had Cilic done just enough to inflict pain?
“Yeah, he was playing very aggressive,” said Nadal.”
But once Nadal had pretty much let the fourth slide away, was it possible the fifth could have curtain dropped so rapidly? A man was once asked, how did you go bankrupt? Two ways—gradually and suddenly. Just like that, the possibilities of another sublime Nadal-Federer final had vanished. Our Nadal-Federer soup, sandwiches, gravy—gone, gone, gone.
Ever since Cilic won the 2014 US Open, he has occupied rare and awkward territory. That one Slam victory had been his upgrade into tennis’ first-class section. But of all the Slams a player earns, none is probably more difficult than the second. The first is a surprising ride into excellence, the aspirant simply playing one point after another and then arriving at nirvana. The third is a journey into the familiar, an experienced champion taking another lap around the worn track.
Cilic has accrued enough results to enter the airline club lounge and see if he’ll be given another chance to fly at the front of the plane. The good news is that he’s one of only two players still in the men’s draw who’ve won a major. The bad news is that the other is not just a passenger, but often considered the pilot. His name is Roger.