His run through the Golden Swing of South America, reaching the Rio semi and taking the title in Buenos Aires, had helped him build fitness and confidence, and workmanlike wins in the contrasting conditions of California, losing just six games in each of his four matches, began to build his rhythm, too.
So by the time he took on world No6 Milos Raonic, he was looking good but not his best. He saved that for the biggest test so far, literally when it came to the 6ft 5in Canadian. For while Nadal had beaten Raonic in all five previous meetings, their last in Miami had gone to three sets.
And there was no doubting that the Canadian was improving all the time, as were his results at the big tournaments. Raonic had advanced to the quarter-final or better at eight of his last 10 Masters events. And thus far, he had yet to be broken.
But in Nadal—a three-time champion at this prestigious Masters—he faced one of the best returners in the game, as evidenced by the statistics. The Spaniard topped the table, winning 52 per cent of games when returning serve—considerably better even than Andy Murray. If anyone could break down and chase down Raonic, it was the mighty Spaniard.
And sure enough, it took him only two attempts to break a tight Raonic, and to love. And that was all he needed: Nadal’s own serve is a solid component, not easily broken, especially once rallies extend beyond a shot or two, for few men can live with the bounding ball-striking and speed of Nadal in full flow. It took only 36 minutes, during which Nadal put together better serving figures than Raonic to take the set, 6-4, and at the cost of just five unforced errors.
When Raonic opened the second set with a double fault, a huge sigh circled the arena. When he followed it with a forehand error, and Nadal pulled off one of his signature running forehand passes for break point, it looked as though the match might run away from Raonic just as it had against Tomas Berdych.
But the Canadian took a deep breath, took his time, and held. Three more times he faced break points in the fifth game, and again he held. Once more in the ninth, a break point came and was defended by the Canadian, who was now beginning to find better range and pace on his forehand.
This was now the business end of the set, and suddenly Raonic worked his first two break chances of the match—and set points. But clutch serving from Nadal fought them off and they headed to their first ever tie-break. It turned into a set all of its own.
From an edgy double fault by Nadal on his first serve, through three match points for the Spaniard, via a 147mph ace from Raonic, the Canadian finally stole the set at the third attempt, 12-10. It had been gripping, the crowd cheering first one, then the other. That set had taken over an hour and 20 minutes… and the crowd had more to come.
This time, Nadal served first, but there was little between the two men through almost another hour of tennis. Raonic was now more able to stay with Nadal from the baseline, and made great inroads with his forehand, both off to the far wing, cross-court, and down the line. He looked calm and he looked confident.
Nadal, indeed, was being run ragged, but it was still the Spaniard who earned the first break point in the sixth game. It was snuffed out with a 141mph serve, as was a deuce in the 10th game.
Raonic constantly went for his shots and it was starting to pay off. He hurtled in to make a great touch volley winner and forced an error from Nadal to earn break point. The Canadian just missed the sideline with a huge forehand, but the next hit the mark for another bite of the cherry. He chased down a Nadal drive wide outside the court to throw up a lob, and it beat the chasing Spaniard to grab the vital break.
Could the Canadian keep is composure in the face of his first victory over Nadal? Two aces and a volley winner took him to match point, and Nadal’s best scurrying was not enough to retrieve one more forehand. Raonic won, after three hours of gripping tennis, 7-5.
In the end, it was the Canadian’s new skills that reaped the rewards. The third set was packed with net chases, forehands of every description, and some tireless defence that showed the work he had put into improving his movement and speed. And it earned him a place at the top table with three of the ‘big four’ in his fifth Masters semi-final.
There, he will play Federer for the ninth time, and he has cause to be optimistic despite the adverse 1-8 head to head. He beat Federer in Shanghai last autumn and lost in three close sets in the final of Brisbane this year.
Raonic said he had “put it all out there” to beat Nadal. That may play a crucial part when he meets Federer, who spent barely a third of the time on court in beating Berdych.
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