Wednesday 23 August 2017

Nadal extends resurgence to keep Federer dream alive

Rafael Nadal returns a shot during his quarter-final victory. Image: AP Photo/Aaron Favila
Rafael Nadal returns a shot during his quarter-final victory. Image: AP Photo/Aaron Favila

Simon Briggs

We saw a glimpse of the old Rafa yesterday, as Rafael Nadal delighted Melbourne with a straight-sets win over Milos Raonic.

With the semi-finals due to begin this morning, the tennis world is holding its breath for the perfect conclusion: a showdown between Nadal and Roger Federer on Sunday night.

Yesterday's win may have been devalued slightly by Raonic's latest injury - a recurrence of the adductor problem that has now surfaced four times in the past year. But this still felt like a flashback to the days when Nadal wore a singlet and pirate pants.

The transformation is a radical one. Coming into the Australian Open, Nadal had not beaten a top-10 player at a slam - nor even taken a set off one - since his most recent hurrah, the French Open title he won in 2014.

This week, though, he has ousted Gael Monfils and Raonic in successive rounds, and is now expected to deal swiftly with Grigor Dimitrov in tomorrow's semi-final.

The tone was set yesterday as early as the sixth point, which found Raonic banging down a 140mph body serve.

Nadal, who was boldly standing up just a foot or two behind the baseline, managed to swerve out of the way and slam a forehand winner up the line. For a man whose return has never been seen as a great strength, it was a compelling way to begin.

Here was the unexpected benefit from Nadal's narrow loss to Raonic in Brisbane only three weeks ago. He came away with a few tactical clues.

"In Brisbane, I was receiving like six, seven metres behind the baseline," he said. "We know that we needed to change that."

The result was a far more assertive performance, in which Nadal regularly sent passing shots fizzing past Raonic at the net. He also used his swinging leftie serve superbly. Despite giving away around 30mph on the speed gun, he had a far higher win rate on first serve: 83pc to Raonic's 68.

Even if Nadal should really have dropped the second set, in which Raonic managed to waste six set points, he will be buzzing with confidence after his 6-4, 7-6, 6-4 victory.

Even better for him, the other three survivors are all right-handers with single-handed backhands - the style of opponent he likes better than anything else.

In the latest odds adjustment of a topsy-turvy fortnight, the bookies have now installed him as title favourite.

Earlier, Dimitrov had overcome Belgium's David Goffin in similarly emphatic fashion: 6-3, 6-2, 6-4. (Unusually, all four men's quarter-finals were settled in three sets.)

This win provided the latest evidence of Dimitrov's growing maturity, as he shrugged off the frustration of two missed match points in the penultimate game, holding to love to close out the win. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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