MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA—When Rafael Nadal and Milos Raonic walked on court to play their eagerly awaited match tonight, both men were well aware that this was not simply another quarterfinal at a major. They realized that the stakes were much higher on this occasion under the evening skies in front of a highly charged audience thirsting for a riveting battle. They both understood that victory was an imperative and defeat an unacceptable alternative. They knew that the winner of this match would move on with a chance to take the title, while the loser might suffer deep emotional wounds of a kind that linger for an agonizingly long while.
Why did this particular match mean so much to both players? For Nadal, the last couple of seasons have been filled with a steady line of disappointments. Since capturing his 14th Grand Slam tournament singles title at Roland Garros in 2014, Nadal had played eight majors on his way to Melbourne this year, and not once had he advanced beyond the quarterfinals. For a man of his stature and a fellow accustomed to success on the highest level—he set a men's record by winning at least one major a year for ten consecutive seasons starting in 2005 and ending in 2014—the notion of not even reaching the penultimate round at the preeminent events for so long was inconceivable. That was why he wanted to win so badly in this showdown with Raonic.
As for the burly Canadian, he had his own reasons for giving his all to secure a triumph on an important stage. The 26-year-old reached his first major semifinal at Wimbledon in 2014, and his second here in Melbourne a year ago. At Wimbledon last July, he advanced to his first major final. The game's foremost authorities have been anticipating a Raonic breakthrough at a Grand Slam event all through these last couple of years as he has grown more comfortably into his talent. He did not want to let an opportunity to move into another semifinal at a Grand Slam event elude his grasp. And having just beaten Nadal on hard courts in the quarterfinals of Brisbane—coming from behind to prevail in three sets—Raonic had every reason to believe in himself and his chances. Despite a 2-6 career deficit against the Spaniard, Raonic had been victorious in two of their last three meetings heading into his latest clash with Nadal here.
Making the encounter even more intriguing was this: Raonic is the No. 3 seed here and he wants to demonstrate that he can move higher and threaten the status of world No. 1 Andy Murray and No. 2 Novak Djokovic. The pressure was squarely on his shoulders when he confronted Nadal tonight, in stark contrast to the way it has been through much of the rivalry. Raonic has long been an individual who has seemed somewhat fragile in the way he has carried himself on the court. He often seems almost too aware of the score and the situation. That is not to say that he is not a formidable competitor, but the fact remains that he often reveals high tension when big matches are excruciatingly close. He has improved markedly in that regard, but his issues have not yet been fully resolved.
As for Nadal, his injuries over the last couple of years to his wrist especially have done damage to his psyche as well. He built his gigantic reputation largely around a mental toughness that no one else could match. His capacity to deal with adversity and move past his demons was always second to none, but since his triumphant journey at the French Open in 2014 he has been found wanting frequently when it has counted. His career five set record is 18-8 but in 2015 and 2016 he suffered no less than three defeats in five set skirmishes at " Big Four" tournaments, starting with a deeply wounding defeat against Fabio Fognini at the 2015 U.S. Open, continuing with a debilitating loss here last year to Fernando Verdasco and concluding with a hard setback at the 2016 U.S. Open to Lucas Pouille, when the Spaniard served with a 4-3, 30-0 lead in the final set and also reached 6-6 in the tie-break, standing two points away from victory.
In this tournament, Nadal made amends for that series of five set losses. He rallied from two sets to one down to oust Alexander Zverev in the third round. To be sure, he was fortunate that Zverev started cramping at 2-2 in the fifth set, but to the Spaniard that was inconsequential. He sorely needed a win under those circumstances, and he got just that. He followed with a four set victory over Gael Monfils. Raonic, meanwhile, was pushed to four sets by Gilles Simon in the third round and dropped another set to No. 13 seed Roberto Bautista Agut in the fourth round. He has been battling the flu. So how he would approach this appointment psychologically was an open question.
As it transpired, Nadal was the stronger man mentally, despite battling himself at times on a cool evening in Rod Laver Arena. He came through 6-4, 7-6 (7), 6-4, fending off no fewer than six set points in the pivotal second set. The Spaniard broke Raonic once in the opening set and once more to finish off the match in the third. He did not lose his serve all night long, withstood some patchy play off his normally trustworthy forehand side, moved past his nerves in the middle of the contest, and came away deservedly with a straight sets triumph. This was not vintage Nadal, but the bottom line is he got the job done with extraordinary pride and professionalism, and no small measure of sparkle.
Let's review what happened. To be sure, Nadal and Raonic have played far better matches against each other, most notably in their most recent skirmish (won by Raonic) in Brisbane.They also had a dandy of a duel at Indian Wells two years ago when Raonic saved three match points and ousted Nadal in three pulsating sets. But the fact of the matter is that players who reside at or near the top of the tennis world will have confrontations like this one where neither player is at his zenith and victory is attained only through genuinely hard work and sheer perseverance.
This is not to suggest that Nadal did not perform spectacularly at different junctures of the match, but the view here is that he was not content in the least with his level of consistency and he did not measure his forehand as impeccably as he normally does. Nonetheless, when he had to come up with the goods, when the chips were on the line, when it mattered the most, Nadal was a prodigious figure who reminded us at various stages of the match why he is one of the greatest players of all time.
The signs were evident from the outset that Raonic was in for a rough evening. Too many of his biggest deliveries were coming back as Nadal stood up closer to the baseline on his returns and read the Canadian's serve beautifully. Raonic held after three deuces for 1-0, but that kind of start was no confidence booster. Nadal followed with a love hold for 1-1, and then, after Raonic held easily, Nadal survived a deuce game himself for 2-2.
Nadal had clearly done his homework and figured out which way Raonic was going with his thunderbolts because the Spaniard was managing to keep returns in play off first serves released at speeds in excess of 215 kilometers. Raonic saved a break point in holding for 3-2 but only through good fortune. Nadal's backhand passing shot caught the net tape and fell back on his own side of the net.
And yet, two games later, Nadal found his opening. He made one return off a 227 kilometer serve, another off a 219 kilometer delivery, and then broke at 15 for 4-3 with an intelligent sliced lob off the backhand that elicited an errant overhead from the backtracking Canadian. Nadal used the wind to his full advantage on that point. He held at 15 for 5-3 before Raonic held at 30 in the ninth game, winning all four of his points with aces. Nadal then served for the set in the tenth game.At 15-0, he apprehensively smothered a forehand into the net but proceeded to sweep the next three points with a backhand unforced error from Raonic, an inside out forehand winner, and an excellent forehand approach that set up an easy overhead into the clear. Set to Nadal, 6-4. He was off and running.
But the second set got complicated. Serving at 0-1, Nadal tightened up considerably, He saved one break point in a five deuce game, but held on steadfastly. Both players held to make it 3-2 for Raonic, who then took a medical timeout for an abductor injury. That same issue had plagued him in his five set loss to Murray a year ago on the same court in the semifinals. In any case, he left the court with the trainer but returned and played some of his best tennis of the match, using the inside out forehand to great gain and pulling Nadal off the court with regularity.
Nadal faced his first crisis at 4-5. A pair of errant forehands put Nadal behind 0-30. He took the next point, only to double fault wide in the ad court for 15-40. Down double set point, he sent a first serve wide to the Raonic forehand in the deuce court, and there was no chance for the No. 3 seed on the return. Raonic faltered with a backhand down the line unprovoked mistake to make it deuce, but soon garnered a third set point. Nadal erased that one unhesitatingly, taking the Raonic return and driving a forehand up the line for a magnificent outright winner. He held on from there for 5-5.
Both men held to set up a critical tie-break. Early on, Nadal's nerves surfaced again. He bungled an inside out forehand to lose the first point, took the next two, and then made another costly mistake off the forehand for 2-2. Raonic moved ahead 3-2 on serve before a determined Nadal knotted the score at 3-3. But he lost the next point on his own serve when an aggressive Raonic ventured forward for a short forehand half volley that set up a backhand volley winner past Nadal.
Raonic advanced to 5-3 but Nadal connected impeccably with a backhand crosscourt passing shot winner. The left-hander served at 4-5, but his tame forehand approach got him in trouble. Raonic lofted a scintillating forehand topspin lob winner, and so Nadal had to serve at 4-6. He was facing a fourth set point, but saved it with a fine first serve that drew a backhand return error from Raonic. At set point for the fifth time, Raonic remarkably double faulted long to make it 6-6 in the tie-break. He took the next point, though, and so Nadal was staring at a sixth set point against him. Raonic could not take advantage, missing an inside out forehand that was never in the cards. It was now 7-7, and Nadal wisely directed a first serve to the Raonic forehand in the deuce court, and the return found the net.
And so, after all the turmoil, after spending so much of the set under siege, Nadal had moved into an 8-7 lead with a set point of his own. Raonic was serving and got the first delivery in, but then cracked an inside out forehand off the net cord that landed wide.Nadal had stolen the tie-break with his head, his heart and his unwavering competitive spirit. Raonic had squandered six set points and had wasted too many opportunities. The set had gone to Nadal, nine points to seven in the tie-break. He was up two sets to love.
Raonic had displayed no obvious signs of pain from his injury across the first two sets, but winced at times in the third. And yet, he kept holding on.The problem was that he was making no headway on Nadal's serve because the Spaniard was no longer giving points away. On his way to a 5-4 lead in the third set, Nadal won 20 of 24 points on his delivery. Raonic had a tougher time but he kept himself in the match. And yet, at 4-5, serving to stay in the contest, Raonic could no longer avert defeat. Nadal opened that tenth game of the third set with a splendid backhand passing shot winner. A backhand unforced error from Raonic made it 0-30. Now Nadal ignited both himself and the crowd with an inspired display that lifted him into a triple match point situation. He laced a forehand down the line that Raonic scraped back. Nadal responded with a drop shot, and Raonic scampered forward to no avail, netting a backhand. A buoyant Nadal jumped for joy after winning that point for 0-40. Raonic came to the net but Nadal's forehand pass down the line forced a forehand volley error on the stretch.
Nadal was victorious 6-4, 7-6 (4), 6-4, collecting the last eight points of the match. His discipline, determination and gumption were the trio of factors leading to this triumph. It wasn't entirely pretty, but Nadal deserves high marks for how he applied himself when it counted, for the way he comported himself down the stretch, and for the manner of his victory. He won 83% of his first serve points while Raonic was at only 68% in that category. That was crucial. Nadal wiped away all four break points against him and converted two of the three he had against Raonic.
This triumph was largely about the Nadal brand of competing. He was unwavering and gutsy across the board. Was Raonic hurt badly? Only he knows the answer to that question but Nadal need not concern himself with that. He has been on the other side of that equation too frequently over the last couple of years, nursing his own injuries, dealing with his own doubts, sorting through his own woes and seldom feeling at the top of his physical or psychological game.
Now he is on a terrific run, back in the semifinals of a major at last, hoping to put himself in a position to garner a 15th Grand Slam singles championship. He meets a surging and unmistakably confident Grigor Dimitrov in the penultimate round. Dimitrov is dazzlingly talented and well rounded. " Baby Fed" has an elegant one-handed backhand, a full range of capabilities, and a deep inner belief at the moment. He will not make matters easy for Nadal when they collide in the penultimate round. But Nadal will clearly be the favorite, and across the best of five sets I like his chances. He is a keen student of tennis history, and knows full well that he would be the first man since Rod Laver to win all four majors at least twice if he were to topple Dimitrov and then capture the final.
The fans will be somewhat torn when Nadal takes on Dimitrov, who is a highly appealing player and an outstanding shotmaker. But I believe there will be more sentiment on Nadal's side of the net. The 30-year-old is right back where he has longed to be, and for those who have always admired his unique set of virtues and the singular brand of intensity he brings into the arena, it is a joy to watch him back in the thick of things with a chance to make history again of the highest order.