From a low of 10 in the rankings after failing to defend his French Open title and then a second-round loss at Wimbledon, he was fighting his way to within sight of a place among the elite eight at the World Tour Finals.
Now he was up to No7, and a final run in Beijing last week, his 49th match-win of the year, took him to sixth in the Race to London. His final match against six-time champion Novak Djokovic, the top player of the year by a mile, was a disappointing 6-2, 6-2 loss, but he had turned the tables on a player who had proved a thorn in his side in 2015, Fabio Fognini, along the way, and talked of growing confidence in his progress and his tennis.
But still floating outside the top four, his draw as he arrived for the Shanghai Rolex Masters was far from easy. His first seed was scheduled to be the big serving Milos Raonic, who would surely thrive on the fast Shanghai courts—and also had the incentive of a London place on the line. He had, incidentally, also scored his first win over Nadal this year in Indian Wells.
The quarter-finals then threatened No4 seed Stan Wawrinka, who had won their last two matches, though he had the not insignificant hurdle of Marin Cilic lined up for the third round.
First and foremost, though, was the formidable No21-ranked, 6ft11in serving machine that is Ivo Karlovic. The 36-year-old was riding high on a new record for career aces, set last week in Beijing—a total of 10,265—and surely the faster surface of Shanghai would make him even more deadly.
Nadal had beaten the Croat in all four previous matches, but all the best-of-three contests had gone the distance and involved tie-breaks. It was also worth noting that Karlovic was one of only four men to beat Djokovic in 2015 in the first tournament of the year. But set against the Croat’s highest percentage of service games won this year was his position at the bottom of the return-games won—and he was playing one of the best returners in the game.
It would indeed be a fine game of huge contrasts: Karlovic’s serve and volley game—dynamic, explosive and exposing—against Nadal’s searing return-of-serve winners, running passes and baseline resilience.
Karlovic shocked the entire arena with an immediate break, and even more remarkably, he fought off two break points in the fourth game to take a 3-1 lead.
But with Karlovic serving for the set, Nadal unleashed his finest tennis to make two return of serve winners and broke with a third winner, this time on the backhand side. A love hold, and Nadal was on the rampage: He broke again with some stunning returns to Karlovic’s net-racing feet to take the set, 7-5.
A measure of Nadal’s disruptive returning to the serve-and-volleying Croat was in the stats: 18 times Karlovic attacked the net, only four times did he win the point.
But in the second set, Karlovic found a way to contain the Spaniard not just with his serving but with some fine net plays and some testing backhand slices deep to the corner. Karlovic could not take advantage of break points in the ninth game and Nadal continued to make life difficult with some stunning passing shots. By the time they entered the tie-break, he had slotted 15 to Karlovic’s zero, but it was the Croat’s serve and volleying that carried him through a compelling final game, making back-to-back volley winners to win the 63-minute set, 7-6(4).
The third set would unfold with equally fine play and with not a break point in sight. But in the decisive tie-break, it was Karlovic who blinked just the once, with a double fault, to lose the advantage, 4-5, and Nadal stole the set and match, 7-6(4).
The winner count was high—52 from the Croat to 39 from Nadal—with both hitting fewer errors. Nadal, indeed, made just 14 in two and three-quarter hours of tennis. It was lively, dynamic and tense, with almost 100 net plays between them.
It was Nadal’s 50th win of the season and real morale booster—not least because it moves him a step closer to London. And having missed the World Tour Finals four times in the last decade with injury, including last year, that has been his target for most of the season.
He was clearly delighted, as he told ATPWorldTour.com: “I think I played a good match. The only negative thing was the first game of the match. The real thing is he played so well the first set, the first game, too. He played well.
“In terms of level of concentration and attitude and control of my emotions, it was a fantastic match. To win 7-6 in the third is a very important victory for me, especially because I believe in the last tie-break I did not lose a single point on my serve. That’s because I was in control again of my emotions. That’s the most important thing for me today.”
Nadal will next face Milos Raonic, who saved a match point against Roberto Bautista Agut, 6-4, 6-7(3), 7-6(5).
In yet another three-set thriller, Feliciano Lopez beat Dominic Thiem 6-7(4), 7-6(6), 6-3. It was Lopez’s first victory in four attempts over the 22-year-old Austrian, but he now faces the daunting task of Djokovic, who took under an hour to beat Martin Klizan, 6-2, 6-1.
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