Fighting off a sluggish start, Rafael Nadal reached the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Open, defeating Kei Nishikori 6-4, 6-3, Friday in Indian Wells, California.
The result continues Nadal's head-to-head dominance over Nishikori, with the 29-year-old Spaniard now victorious in eight of their nine meetings.
This was arguably Nadal's best performance of the tournament. He looked shaky against Gilles Muller before ultimately prevailing and saw a noticeable drop in the second set of his eventual third-round win over Fernando Verdasco.
Both players advanced to the quarterfinals after having fought off match points in their previous matches. Nadal was down 5-2 in the final set before knocking out 18-year-old Alexander Zverev, while Nishikori needed tiebreakers in the second and third sets to go his way against John Isner.
Nishikori was cruising early in the first set Friday, jumping out to an 3-1 early lead. He was moving Nadal all around the court, to the extent that Nadal was having a hard time arriving to the ball in time to set up for his shots.
Up two break points, Nishikori instead let the fifth game slip away, and Nadal trimmed the gap to one game, 2-3. Although the game didn't come at a pivotal point in the match, something seemed to change in Nishikori. He started losing sharpness on his groundstrokes, and his frustration grew more and more as Nadal turned the tables.
Tennis writer Carole Bouchard believes Friday was emblematic of a larger problem for Nishikori:
Nishikori has the game. Physically he's way better now. But I'm still not always convinced he mentally has what it takes to win that big.— Carole Bouchard (@carole_bouchard) March 18, 2016
Nadal won the first set 6-4, and his forehand winner on set point illustrated how Nishikori was at times powerless to stop the onslaught, via TennisTV:
It's crazy to think about the roller-coaster ride that is the 14-time Grand Slam champion's journey through the BNP Paribas Open so far, as noted by Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim:
A point from losing in QF, Nadal in beast mode now....— Jon Wertheim (@jon_wertheim) March 18, 2016
The second set was a continuation of the first as Nadal took a 3-0 lead, after which Nishikori was looking extremely flustered, per Iain Fordyce:
Kei hits a forehand about a mile long and throws his racket onto the ground and his hands into the air. 3-0 Nadal.— Iain Fordyce (@IainFordyce) March 18, 2016
Nishikori began offering some resistance, but the damage had already been done. After being there to see Zverev throw away a golden opportunity in their quarterfinal clash, Nadal wasn't going to gift his opponent a chance to get back into the match.
While Nadal started really clicking for the first time in a while, the true extent of his improvement will become clear in the semifinals. He'll face the winner of Novak Djokovic vs. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the result of which will likely be a Djokovic victory.
Although the world's No. 1 player has just a one-match advantage overall in their 47 head-to-head meetings, he has been on the winning end in nine of their last 10 matches against one another, a stretch that includes his victory at the 2015 French Open over Nadal. Djokovic also hasn't dropped a set against Nadal since the 2014 French Open, a streak of six matches.
As long as he's healthy, Nadal will likely be the favorite going into Roland Garros this summer. His quarterfinal exit last year was just the second time since 2005 he failed to win the tournament. Still, if he can beat Djokovic in Indian Wells, that would be a big feather in his cap as he starts on the road to Paris.
After the match, Nadal discussed how this win provided a major confidence boost ahead of the semifinals.
"I beat a top-10 player and that is something that is important for my confidence," he said, per BBC Sport. "I feel I am strong mentally and I have the right energy. I am able to fight for every ball and I now believe in myself the whole match."
Nadal also discussed how he altered his strategy in the middle of the match.
"[Nishikori] started so quickly, hitting all the balls very well and serving great," he said, per the ATP World Tour's official website. "Then he started to miss some first serves, and I returned his second serves aggressively. That was so important in the development of the match."
Nishikori attempted to dissect what went wrong.
"I think the beginning I was stepping in a little more and was hitting using my forehand," he said, per the tournament's official website. "I was hitting really good my serve, first serve, second serve, and maybe he started hitting more deep. I started backing up a little more. I think everything changed between that first set."