Australian Open 2015: Rafael Nadal wins the battle of the big men

Rafael Nadal beats Kevin Anderson in straight sets to reach the quarter-finals of the Australian Open

Whichever way you look at Rafael Nadal, he is a big man.

Big in achievements: 14 Grand Slams, 141 weeks as world No1, a record 27 Masters crowns, Olympic gold medallist, a share in four Davis Cup victories, and a total of 64 titles.

Big in character: He has returned from injury time and again to dominate the tour, determined to win, driven to work ever harder until he does, and dubbed with names that capture his spirit, ‘king of clay, bull of Mallorca, or simply Rafa.

Big in popularity: 7.3 million Twitter followers, 15 million on Facebook, and since the very first day of the Australian Open, top of the Social Leaderboard, with more than twice the tweets of the second, Roger Federer.

Of course, his tennis is big too: one of the biggest topspin forehands in the game, one of the fastest movers, one of most intense strikers.

And then there is his physical presence: few can match the sheer muscularity, the sweat and toil writ large, of the man from Manacor.

He stands at 6ft 1in, once considered the optimum size for a tennis player to marry shot-variety, serving speed, movement and agility around the court. But a look at Nadal’s fellow fourth-round contestants shows that tennis, and those who play it, have moved on—and up.

Nadal would be the shortest of the eight remaining men in the bottom half of the draw. Andy Murray and Grigor Dimitrov are both 6ft 3in; the 6ft 4in Nick Kyrigios played 6ft 3in Andreas Seppi; Bernard Tomic and Tomas Berdych squared up at 6ft 5in; leaving Nadal to take on the tallest of the eight in Kevin Anderson—all 6ft 8in of him.

Both men are 28 years old, but that is where the similarity ended, for in this David and Goliath encounter, it was the shorter man who was the bigger in almost every department, including victor in their only previous match more than four years ago.

The world No2 and former Australian champion had not fallen short of the quarters in a decade, while the No15 seed had never reached the quarters—in Melbourne or any other Grand Slam.

But Anderson’s achievements have come late for good reason. He finished his college career before focusing on the pro tour, so got off to a late start. Since then, his trajectory has been steadily upwards to a current high of No15, and this week he had already beaten Richard Gasquet, hit 64 aces and lost only one set.

As the two men took to their baselines, though, Nadal still managed to look the bigger, his broad shoulders bristling in pink, the green from his bandana and sweatbands almost phosphorescent against the cool blue of a cooler than usual Rod Laver arena. He quickly pummelled his lasso forehand to the first game.

But the quietly-spoken, understated, grey-clad Anderson started well, too: a love hold. And it was he who earned the first break point in the fifth game after some fine, angled backhands broke through the Nadal defences. He was slightly hesitant, though, and the chance evaporated.

The tall South African’s own serve was holding up well, a lovely mix of flat 130mph+ deliveries and swinging wide kickers. By 5-5, he had dropped just one point on serve. Then the same penetrating, early-hit backhand brought another breakthrough for Anderson, 0-40, but those and two more break points went begging in a combination of tight shots from Anderson and aggressive forehand strikes from a fist-pumping Nadal.

It proved to be the turning point of the match, one that suffused Nadal with the adrenalin to hammer home his dominance. He broke a pressured Anderson for the set, 7-5, in 52 minutes.

The second set, with Nadal now even more imposing in stature, raced by in 32 minutes. He took five games on the bounce, and the set 6-1: Anderson had managed not an ace or a break point.

Indeed it was Nadal’s serving that shone. Having dropped only four points on serve in the second set, he lost only five more in the 40 minutes it took him to break in the third game of the third set and complete the win, 6-4.

After a slow start to his year—hardly surprising after losing so much of 2014 to injury and appendicitis—Nadal already begins to look his old self. It’s a familiar story for this most intensely competitive man. Even he, who is inclined to under-rate both his form and his chances of winning, sounded positive:

“There are always [problems]. There are always some key points that change the dynamic of the match… I think Kevin was playing very aggressive from the beginning, going for the winners every shot… In general, even if he had that chance in the first set, I was playing better than the days before, no? I felt myself with better rhythm in the legs, better rhythm with my forehand. So in general, I am very happy the way I played today. The way that I improved my level is not the most important thing; obviously the victory is.”

He added: “Arriving here, losing in the first round of Qatar, not playing matches for the last seven months, to have the chance to be in the quarter-finals again here is a very positive thing for me. [But] I am not a person that am happy like this and that’s it. No. I try to play better and better every day. If that happens, I hope to keep having chances for the next match.”

It’s comment that epitomises the man: No matter how great the comeback or how big the opponent, he refuses to look beyond the next challenge.

He next plays Berdych, who beat one of Australia’s big young hopes in the 22-year-old Tomic, 6-2, 7-6(3), 6-2. The No7-seeded Berdych, like Anderson, has matured with age to become a constant near the top of the rankings and in the finals stages of Grand Slams. This will be his fifth Australian quarter-final in a row, and he made it to the semis last year. But Nadal is the ultimate test for Berdych: The Czech has lost their last 17 meetings.

However he, like Nadal, would brook no predictions: “Every opponent, even if it is the same one, then the match is different. It’s going to start from 0-0. That’s how it is. No comparing with the past. Just trying to be in this time and looking forward to it.”

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