The dominance of the ‘big four’ at the premier level of the ATP tour over the last five years has been remarkable in itself. Since early 2010, Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray have won 46 out of 50 Masters titles—and have also accounted for 26 of the losing finalists.
It was also in 2010 that both Nadal and Federer matched Andre Agassi’s record 17 Masters titles. And although, up until the end of 2009, Federer had led the current quartet with 16, it would be Nadal who outpaced both Federer and Agassi to the top of the honours board.
He did so in style, too, by becoming the first man to win the triple clay Masters of Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome in one season. He ended the year with 18 to Federer’s 17, and the two would then edge to 21 by the end of 2012.
Since then, world No1 Djokovic has gone on a surge and now equals Federer’s 24—yet still Nadal, for all the injury and illness setbacks of last year, has retained the lead when it comes to Masters titles: 27 and counting.
Federer does still hold another Masters accolade, the most match-wins, 326, but Nadal is in hot pursuit of that, as well.
For although these have been lean years for winning titles for the Spaniard—his only Masters in the last two years was in Madrid in 2014—it has not prevented him from accumulating match-wins, as three finals and a couple of semi runs attest to. As he took to court for his quarter-final against Stan Wawrinka in Shanghai, then, he needed just 27 more wins to match the Swiss.
This was a tough match-up for Nadal: Until the start of last year, he had not lost a set to Wawrinka in 12 matches, but since then, the Swiss had won both their meetings, at the Australian Open last year and in Rome this year. Within weeks of that, Wawrinka was also the French Open champion, though that belied a hot-and-cold season for the Swiss almost as much as Nadal, and both men slipped to No10 in the rankings during the course of 2015.
Wawrinka won just four matches between the title in Rotterdam and a semi finish in Rome. He won only two in the US Open Series, but he sealed his place at the World Tour Finals after a semi-final run in New York, and then won the Tokyo 500 last week. He also survived a stern test of almost three hours against Marin Cilic to reach the Shanghai quarters, despite needing treatment on his right shoulder.
Nadal, for his part, was beginning to look and sound like his old self: After a tough start to the season, he was back to No7 in the rankings though yet to qualify for London. But he increasingly impressed against tough opponents, first Ivo Karlovic and then another big server, Milos Raonic. Wawrinka would be a different test, but a telling one.
Nadal opened with a double fault, and Wawrinka brought up deuce with the first of his magnificent cross-court backhands. The Swiss pummelled a forehand for a second deuce, but Nadal held his five-minute opening game.
Wawrinka, too, lost his first point on serve, and went on to face a break point. However he stood his ground on the baseline with that signature backhand past the infamous Nadal forehand wing.
If the rest of the match was as closely contested as this, the Shanghai crowd was in for a treat. It took almost a quarter of an hour to play the first three games, but gradually, things began to accelerate away from the Swiss.
After a couple of easy holds from both sides, the Wawrinka first serve went missing, and Nadal danced around the second delivery to fire an angled off-forehand to break, 4-2, and then showed that his big top-spin cross court was in good working order, too, hitting two blistering winners for an easy hold.
Wawrinka seemed unfocused, almost disengaged, as he raced between points and hit first serves not just out, but out by a metre, and that was guaranteed to infuse Nadal with confidence. The Spaniard broke again for the set, 6-2, after just 33 minutes.
Wawrinka seemed to catch his breath for the opening game of the second set, pulling level at deuce, but Nadal held, and again the energy seemed to drain from the Swiss. His first serve was way off the mark, and he found no penetration on his ground strokes. As Nadal’s forehand zipped past him, he was rooted to the spot.
The break, then, was swift, with most of Wawrinka’s scant points coming from Nadal errors. A rare net play from the Swiss earned a break-back point but another wayward backhand saw the chance slip away. Nadal had a firm grip, 3-0.
Wawrinka rushed through his serve games, double faulting, hitting forehands wide, conceding another break. A 30th unforced error and he was down 0-5. He held serve, just, to get on the scoreboard, but that was as good as it got, and Nadal served out the win, 6-1, after just 63 minutes.
The Spaniard will next face Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who he has beaten in eight of their past 11 meetings. However, rather like Nadal and the man Tsonga beat, Kevin Anderson, the Frenchman is finding some of his best form as 2015 unfolds.
Injury prevented Tsonga, who beat Anderson 7-6(6), 5-7, 6-4, from playing until Miami this year, but a quarter-final run at the US Open and the Metz title have lifted him from a low of 24 in August to be within an outside chance of qualifying for London.
Tsonga saved three set points in the opening tie-breaker with five straight points, conceded just one break point and the set in the second, and broke once in the decider in a top-quality match.
But Nadal will be a different kettle of fish, especially riding a wave of confidence from some of his best form all year. For his Wawrinka win is Nadal’s first over a top-five player since winning the French Open last year, and takes him to within touching distance of London qualification.
As he afterwards told ATPWorldTour.com:
“Being in the semi-finals is a great result for me. I hadn’t played the semi-finals on hard court all year and now I am playing two weeks in a row in the final rounds. That’s a big improvement for me. In terms of confidence, in terms of level of tennis, I am playing better. Very happy for that because I am working so hard.”
This also happens to be Nadal’s 300th Masters match-win—closing the gap on Federer to 26—and one suspects he is far from done on that score yet.
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