Rafael Nadal battles back to beat Marin Cilic for first Basel semi-final

Rafael Nadal beats Marin Cilic in three sets to set up a semi-final clash with Richard Gasquet at the Swiss Indoors in Basel

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis in Basel
rafael nadal
Rafael Nadal in action in Basel Photo: Marianne Bevis

There were old familiar faces packing the quarter-final schedule at the Swiss Indoors, and brand new faces.

There were reputations to be reinforced and fresh milestones to be achieved. Their were firsts and there was history repeating. And that was in just four matches between eight men.

The old familiar came in the shape of the 34-year-old, Basel-born six-time champion Roger Federer, who was targeting an extraordinary seventh title at a fifth different tournament.

Familiar, too, was his opponent David Goffin, who impressed Basel last year by contesting the final with his hero. Separated by a decade in age, the 34-year-old was now seeded and hoping to perform rather better this time around.

At the other end of the draw was an even older, and rather larger figure, Ivo Karlovic. Familiar in Basel, after taking Federer to three sets in last year’s semi-final, and familiar in statistical headlines for his serving prowess. He took the record for aces in a career only this month, and this year became the oldest man in 25 years to break the top 20 and to win a title.

He took on a resurgent 29-year-old Richard Gasquet, playing the kind of tennis that had thrilled fans when he burst into the top 10 at barely 21 years old in 2007, and still with a chance of a place at the World Tour Finals—he had to win in Basel, and again next week in Paris, but was in line for a first reserve spot in any case.

Gasquet and Karlovic were followed onto court by two Americans who were playing each other for the first time.

Donald Young had won just one match in Basel before, now he was in the quarters after taking out No4 seed Kevin Anderson to record a career-high 22 wins for the year. The 23-year-old Jack Sock had never played in Basel before, had missed four months at the start of the season with injury and family illness, but had won his first title in Houston and reached a career-high No27 in the rankings.

These two, though, were followed by perhaps the most intriguing match of the day—a first meeting in four and a half years between two Grand Slam champions, the No 3 seed Rafael Nadal and No7 seed Marin Cilic.

Since that Rome 2011 contest—an easy win on clay to Nadal—a lot of water had gone under the bridge. Cilic went on to win his first Major at the US Open last year, break into the top 10, and qualify for his first World Tour Finals.

Nadal, No1 when they last met, would drop to No5 after missing eight months with knee injury between Wimbledon 2012 and February 2013. He would reclaim the top spot by the end of a record-breaking 2013—10 titles from 14 finals—and pick up four more French Opens, a US Open and eight Masters titles along the way.

As for 2015, both had less than ideal seasons. Cilic managed only one tournament in the first three month due to a shoulder injury, had not beaten a top-10 player since his US Open win, and had not won a tournament until this month’s Moscow Cup. He had yet to be really tested in Basel, too—winning his two matches easily but playing two of the lowest ranked players in the draw.

Nadal, too, had struggled with his usual world-beating form after ending last year right here to recuperate injuries and undergo an appendectomy, ending an already disrupted autumn schedule. This year, he found himself at No10 in the rankings, though he gradually fought back to a current No7, and without a Major or a Masters for the first time in a decade.

He arrived, though, with a strong Asian swing behind him, and increasingly confident in his ability to fight back from losing positions: He proved it in two tough first matches here, three-setters against Lukas Rosol and Grigor Dimitrov.

Both were in their second Basel quarter-final and in pursuit of their first semi-final—and it was tough to call.

And for eight games, the two were locked without a break point in sight, but Nadal’s serving wavered in the ninth, Cilic struck flat and hard to bring up break point, and Nadal just missed with a forehand down the line. Cilic served out the set with a 215kph ace to take the lead, 6-4, after 40 minutes.

The second set established the tone for the rest of the match, a slugfest of chance and counter chance. Nadal was broken in the first game, a long, tough battle that he conceded with a forehand just wide, and Cilic held for 2-0.

But the fourth game, Nadal returned the compliment, again with a forehand drive, and Cilic fluffed the return into the net.

It was a similar story in the seventh game, a long gruelling battle during which Cilic twice double faulted and fought off four break points before conceding the break when Nadal attacked a second serve. Even at this stage, Cilic had the chance to break back, but Nadal dug in to hold for 6-3.

Now the confidence was visible in the Nadal body language, with his characteristic strut around the baseline. It would not be an easy third set, but Nadal got the immediate break, and fought off break back points in the fourth game for 3-1. Cilic was starting to buckle under the pressure, and Nadal went out in a flurry of big returns to break in the final game for the matc,h 6-3.

He afterward talked of finding solutions, a common theme this year as he has fought to regain his form: “It’s trying to find solutions when the match was difficult. I think he was playing great. After 4-4, and the break, I tried to change a little bit the position on the return. It’s a great win for me.

“I have the motivation to improve every day and that is what I am doing my whole career. I’m working hard to find the feeling and mental strength. So after a lot of work, it is a very important victory for me.”

Nadal nows goes on to play Richard Gasquet, who he has beaten in all 13 previous matches. But as Gasquet said after yet another fine performance against Ivo Karlovic, 6-4, 6-7(2), 7-6(6), maybe this time would be his first win.

He has certainly shown flair, power and concentration, not least in facing down match point in the deciding tie-break against the formidable Croat. But the Frenchman held his nerve to take the final three points and the win in two hours and 26 minutes.

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