By the end of the same day, Murray’s route to the final had been cleared of its biggest hurdles, first No7 seed Stan Wawrinka and then No2 seed Rafael Nadal.
Wawrinka’s loss to the talented Frenchman, No 28 seed Adrian Mannarino, was always possible. The Swiss has rarely performed at this best on Miami’s courts, his best runs being two fourth-round finishes last year and in 2014.
Factor in that Mannarino was at a career-high ranking after his first ATP final in Auckland, a semi run in Delray Beach and his first Masters fourth-round in Indian Wells, and the contest was intriguing. Add into the mix that Mannarino has the kind of variety in spin, pace, touch and serve to give Wawrinka neither rhythm nor room to open up his big-strike game, and the Swiss man’s two-tie-break loss littered with errors and few winners, was not a huge surprise.
Wawrinka was scheduled to be Murray’s quarter-final foe should the Briton beat Kevin Anderson tomorrow. Now, Wawrinka’s place will be taken by a man playing his first ever Masters quarter-final, either Mannarino or the 21-year-old single-hander from Austria, Dominic Thiem.
But things would soon take another unexpected turn. Nadal, the four-time runner-up in Miami and finalist last year, had beaten compatriot, the 31-year-old Fernando Verdasco, in 13 of their 14 previous matches, his only loss being their last meeting three years ago. Since that win, the temperamental Verdasco had slipped from No16 in the rankings to 59 a year later, and well outside the top 30 just six months back. Even now, he only made the seedings because of withdrawals higher up the rankings.
And yet… when Verdasco finds his form, he can hit with the kind of depth, power and angle to trouble the best. Witness one of the finest semi-finals ever played at the Australian Open in 2009, when he pressed Nadal through over five hours and five sets of gripping tennis. And he did the same to this same opponent in Cincinnati two years later, eventually losing in three tie-breakers.
Clearly the Verdasco who turned up to play in Miami believed he could repeat his, thus far, one-off win over his illustrious colleague. Nadal was yet to show his best form since his return from a troubled six months of injury and illness in 2014. Not until hitting his beloved clay in South America had he won his first title since winning the French Open last year, though his tennis in Indian Wells—beaten by an impressive Milos Raonic in the quarters—suggested that court-time was beginning to work its magic for Nadal.
He certainly put another compatriot, Nicolas Almagro, to the sword, in his opener in Miami, even though Nadal had suffered a surprise first defeat to him in Madrid last year.
I’m still playing with too much nerves for a lot of moments
However, Verdasco went on the offensive from the start, breaking when Nadal served a double fault in the eighth game. Nadal, though, broke straight back, and the momentum now seemed certain to carry the No2 seed on, but Verdasco struck again, taking the set, 6-4, with another break.
Nadal shook his head, unused to making so many errors, but seemed to right the ship in the second set, helped by better serving, and he broke twice to level the match, 6-2.
Past history suggested that Nadal would now race to a winning conclusion, accelerating on a wave of confidence as Verdasco imploded from loss of confidence. But it was quite the reverse: Verdasco’s serving improved, Nadal’s declined, and the No29 seed broke for 3-1, and kept his lead to the set’s conclusion, 6-3.
Verdasco, given his intensity in play, is a surprisingly quietly-spoken character, and was keen only to look forward: “Today was a good day. I played good and I won… I’m very happy, and now I just need to try to rest and be ready for the next one.”
His next one will be against another Spanish-speaking 31-year-old making some comeback moves this season, Juan Monaco, who beat Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, 7-5, 6-4. They, too, have not played for three years, Verdasco winning the last.
But it was soon Nadal who was back in limelight after an even more frank than usual press conference that laid bear the trials of this current season.
“It’s not a question of tennis. Is a question of being enough relaxed to play well on court. Today my game in general improved since a month and a half. But at the same time, I’m still playing with too much nerves for a lot of moments, in important moments, still playing a little bit anxious.
“For example, at 4-3 in the first set, and then at 5-4, 30-0—something that didn’t happen a lot during my career. I have been able to control my emotions during, let’s say, 90 per cent, 95 per cent of my matches, something that today is tougher. But I gonna fix it. I don’t know if in one week, in six months, or in one year, but I gonna do it.”
He insisted, though, that his problems were no longer physical: “The physical problems are past. I am in competition. I’m playing weeks in a row. Is not an excuse. What happened last year, yes obviously all the problems that I had didn’t help, but… is a different story today. Feeling much more comfortable in my tennis, practising well, much better than in Australia… But [I am] feeling more tired than usual, feeling that I don’t have this self-confidence that I gonna hit the ball where I want to hit the ball, go for the ball and know that my position will be the right one. One of the tougher things has been fixed, that is the game. Now I need to fix the nerves, the self-control on court. That’s another issue.”
Yet he continued to sound, well, unconfident. “I am not saying that didn’t happen in the past, but happened for—one point, two points. Happened, and then [snapping fingers] I’m able to say, Okay, I am here… But now… a little bit on and off too much. That’s something that didn’t happen in the past, no? But at the same time I have been able to change a lot of negative situations in my career, and I want to do it again. Gonna work to do it again. I am confident that I can do it.”
Of course Nadal now heads to the phase in the season that he loves the most, the long, points-rich clay swing that takes in three Masters and the French Open, where he will attempt to win an extraordinary 10th title. He has room, too, to make up lost ground after a 2014 swing that was rather less perfect than former years: He lost in the quarters of both Monte Carlo and Barcelona and conceded the Rome title to Novak Djokovic after winning the opening set.
But to make things more tricky, he may embark on the first of them outside the top four: Murray is set to reclaim the No3 ranking, and Kei Nishikori could reach No4 if he repeats his semi run of last year.
Nadal talked of these challenges, too: “I arrive in an important part of the season for me… and I am excited. I am enough motivated to keep working hard, and that’s what I gonna do. The tournaments that are coming are tournaments that are historically good for my game, good for my confidence. Is true that if I’m not able to control all these things, I’m not gonna have the possibility to compete well and have success… But still with confidence, I can do it.”
These were always going to be difficult months for the Spaniard whose never-say-die mentality and unparalleled physicality have been his hallmarks. He played only seven matches after Wimbledon last year, nursed a wrist injury, played through back problems, and finally succumbed to appendicitis and surgery in November. The Australian swing is always a taxing opening to the season, and the Indian Wells-Miami is a renowned test of physical and mental endurance—all on Nadal’s least favourite surface.
Nadal has proved time and again that long injury breaks cannot deter him. With his feet on clay, with more match-play in his body, and with a growing tally of wins under his belt, the Nadal endurance and confidence will grow—and all his rivals will know that only too well.
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