You know Rafael Nadal is in trouble when he starts inching back while returning serve, standing deeper and deeper until he is almost level with the line umpire. This isn’t to say that he can’t make telling returns from that deep but it just means that he is taking the ball late and that gives his opponent time to take control of the point.
Of course, to take control against Nadal you have to be playing at a very high level yourself and during the second set of his fourth round match, Marin Cilic did just that. He pushed Nadal back and when the Spaniard was a step too slow, the former US Open champ punished him.
But as the second set – the first that the Spaniard dropped in the tournament – came to a close, Nadal instinctively knew he was being pushed into a corner and if he didn’t change something, the outcome might not be what he wanted.
“Well, I think for some moments in the second set, I felt that too many points were in his hands,” said Nadal during the on-court interview after the match. “He was pushing me back, he was playing more aggressively than me. I was way back on the return and he had the right determination to go inside the court and hit every ball very strong.”
He added: “So after that second set, I just thought that something needed to change because if it doesn’t then whether or not I win the match, I will be in his hands. So I needed to change that. I started to return the second serve inside the court and I think that created a different perspective on the point and me. And Marin too.”
Ironically, the trigger for Nadal was a small hesitation by Cilic. Sometimes, that is all it takes.
Cilic was serving at 1-2, love-30 in the third game of the third set. A crushing flat forehand had Nadal scrambling way behind the baseline to return it and the Spaniard only managed a defensive lob.
It wasn’t a particularly good one and Cilic got under it with ease. He could have smashed it to any part of the court but instead, he hit it straight to Nadal, who had anticipated correctly and taken a few steps to his right. That ball was returned with another defensive lob. which had Cilic back-pedalling to get it.
The return from Cilic this time around was much weaker and Nadal stepped in and hit an 84 mph backhand crosscourt winner. He celebrated the point with multiple fist pumps on the court. Tiger Woods did the same in the stands. And the crowd went nuts.
It was just one point but it prompted a huge momentum shift. Cilic double-faulted on the next point to give Nadal the break and then lost the next seven games.
This was Nadal at his most dangerous – taking the initiative and not just looking at running down everything. He still got back more balls than Cilic, he still ran more than Cilic but it all had a much more positive feel to it.
The nine successive games seemed to take the wind out of Cilic’s sails. He tried to hang in there but once Nadal works up some steam, he is a hard man to stop.
In the third set, Nadal incredibly lost just one point on his first serve, going 12 for 13. For the match, he won 44 of 53 first-serve points, good for 83%.
The serve has been a big weapon for Nadal in this tournament. He entered the match against Cilic as the only player remaining who had not been broken and even though he was broken twice by Cilic, the left-hander has still won 95% of his service games this tournament.
When his serve is firing, he can put opponents under a lot of pressure and that can never be good news. His average serve speed in the tournament has been 118 mph and that is faster than it has ever been before.
The fourth set saw Nadal wrest control early – he won 12 off the final 15 games in the match –but before it was over, Nadal delivered an around-the-post highlight shot that brought back memories of Roger Federer’s effort against Nick Kyrgios in 2018.
“Well, it is easy to describe and easy to make. I followed the ball good because he had a good volley. I ran at it fast and saw at the last moment that there was a small space from that side and it was the only way to win that point. Anyway, I hit that well but of course to hit that spot, you need some luck,” said Nadal.
The shot brought up match point and he promptly sealed his 61st win at the US Open – with a 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, 6-2 scoreline – to make the quarter-final at his ninth consecutive Grand Slam. It is a record that highlights the scary consistency which makes him such a tough opponent.
Nadal doesn’t do off days and as he enters another quarter-final, he has made sure his opponents know that.