Rafael Nadal was forced to work extremely hard for his place in the Australian Open quarterfinals and will be relieved to have beaten Kei Nishikori 7-6(3), 7-5, 7-6(3), as reported by the tournament's official Twitter account:
Nishikori—who has now failed to win a set in six meetings with the Spaniard—dropped the opening break with a trio of errors to hand his opponent the advantage. Nadal served two aces in the next game to make it 2-0, but from there, Nishikori forced the world No. 1 into a tense three-set tussle.
The Japanese star appeared to settle after winning his first game, which was brought about via a terrific forehand volley after Nadal sent a shot long. The errors kept coming quickly for Nadal, who allowed Nishikori to level the set with a series of inaccurate backhands.
Both players stepped up the aggressiveness from here and held serve to force a tiebreaker, and as Nishikori sent a backhand over the line, Nadal wrapped up the first set.
Nishikori's head didn't drop, and while leading 3-2 in the second, Nadal missed a forehand to give his opponent a two-game advantage. However, tt was 4-4 almost instantly as the 27-year-old followed a simple Nishikori mistake with a well-timed forehand volley to grab the break back.
Nadal's power came to the fore at this point, leaving Nishikori struggling to reach each shot with his ferociousness across court. A monstrous forehand winner and ace saw Nadal make the score 6-5 in the second, but unlike the opening exchange, there was no tiebreaker this time.
Both players began to suffer from the wear and tear of such a taxing tournament early in the third, as Nadal received treatment for a blister and Nishikori called for attention to his foot:
Despite looking to take the initiative, the latter let his serve slip to concede a break at 3-1, but in keeping with the rest of the match, Nishikori wasn't done.
Nadal pushed his lead to 4-1, but an excellent backhand volley saw Nishikori get himself back into the set. Remarkably, Nadal's first double fault of the match gave the man from Matsue his break, allowing Nishikori to mount an impressive comeback at 4-3 in the third.
A couple of teasing drop shots later, followed by a massively overhit return from Nadal, saw Nishikori hold serve for 4-4. Nadal followed two unforced errors with a serve that curled away from his opponent to make it 40-30 in the next game, but he once again hit wide after a cross-court battle.
Another Nishikori drop sent Nadal scampering toward the net, but the Spanish star failed to return. He then smashed the net after a tight rally, giving Nishikori a 5-4 lead in the third—completing a remarkable run of four straight games for the underdog, as tweeted by ESPN:
Nishikori couldn't retain his composure in the next and followed an unstoppable forehand winner with two unforced errors that handed Nadal the lead. Nishikori forced another tiebreak, but despite a couple of inspired challenges, he sent a forehand into the net to concede the match.
Nadal completed the win with 36 winners, 12 aces and 28 unforced errors, per the competition's official website. Nishikori also managed 36 winners, but could only muster two aces and struggled for consistency with 51 unforced errors.
Rafa may have been frustrated after being called for a second time violation while having his blister attended to, especially as the umpire gave him a warning at a crucial time, per BBC Sport.
I don't want to change the rule. I accept that sometimes I was slow. I respect that. The negative thing in my opinion is not the warning, but the timing of it. You can choose another moment to do it, not that one.
Despite the annoyance, this event remains a footnote on a competitive match.
Next up for Nadal is Bulgaria's Grigor Dimitrov, who overcame Roberto Bautista Agut 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 in his fourth round tie.