Rafael Nadal withstood an early onslaught to dispatch Milos Raonic, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, Thursday night in the quarterfinals of the 2014 Sony Open:
It sounds cliche, but the best players know how to find a way to win even when they aren't at their best. In Miami, you saw exactly why Nadal is the best men's player in the world at the moment. Between the windy conditions and a tough opponent, Rafa had his hands full, recovering from a poor first set to earn the victory.
This loss will sting for Raonic, as he's now 0-11 against top-five players outside of Andy Murray, per Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times:
Good effort once again, but with the loss, Milos Raonic falls to 0-11 against Top-5 players not named Andy Murray. Still a hump to overcome.— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) March 28, 2014
The Canadian missed a major opportunity on Thursday night, as he let the match slip between the first and second sets.
In the first, he was confident, almost to the extent of being cocksure. Rather than trying to outrun Nadal or beat him from the baseline, he opted to bludgeon him with a fantastic first serve.
Raonic won an impressive 91 percent of his first-service points and recorded five aces. Rafa was powerless to offer any resistance when on the return.
As Rothenberg noted, all Raonic needed was a tiny window with which to break Nadal, and he'd take the set:
144 mph ace by Milos Raonic en route to holding for 3-2 in first, saving Nadal break points. Needs to keep serving hugely to have a chance.— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) March 27, 2014
That first set was indeed a rare sight. In Raonic's four previous meetings with Nadal, he had failed to win a single set, per Sports Illustrated's Beyond the Baseline:
Wow. Nadal double-faults and Raonic takes a set off Rafa for the first time in his career. #sonyopentennis— Beyond The Baseline (@SI_BTBaseline) March 28, 2014
There was a warning sign, however, as Raonic lost 11 of his 14 second-service points in that first set. You can't perform that poorly and expect to beat a player of Nadal's quality. Something needed to change.
The tweak Raonic made was to play much more conservatively in the second. Rather than unleashing on his first serve, he took some speed off in order to get it in and avoid having Nadal tee off on his second serve.
The strategy didn't exactly work out too well, as Raonic negated what had been his strongest asset in the first set. Not coincidentally, Nadal broke him twice and jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the set, eventually cruising to a 6-2 win in the second.
During his post-match interview, the Spaniard admitted how much trouble he had had against Raonic's serve, and how the margin for error was so small, per Greg Garber of ESPN.com.
"There is always the pressure to play against a big server like Milos," Nadal said. "When you are a set down and only have one break, you do not have time to relax. I was lucky to have the advantage at the beginning of the second set when Milos double-faulted."
You could see the confidence leaving Raonic as the set went on. Groundstrokes that he was hammering for winners—or at the very least making Nadal chase down—were ending up long or in the net.
After that one-sided second set, you would have thought that Nadal would roll again in the third, but Raonic composed himself well during the break and put up a great fight in the last set.
The momentum had irrevocably swung toward the world's No. 1, though, as Nadal was never in a ton of danger in the third. He didn't face a single break point in the final set, and when he broke Raonic to take a 4-3 lead, you knew it was all but over:
#Rafa's pumped!! Takes a 4-3 lead! What a match!!— Sony Open Tennis (@SonyOpenTennis) March 28, 2014
With the win, Nadal advances to the semifinal, where he'll play No. 7 Tomas Berdych, who beat No. 22 Alexandr Dolgopolov earlier in the day. The two have met 20 times before, with Nadal winning 17 of the meetings. He hasn't lost to Berdych since 2006 in Madrid as part of the ATP Masters Series.
The Spaniard will definitely enter their semifinal matchup as the heavy favorite.
For the time being, he's one step closer to winning his first title in Miami.