I've felt for a long time that a strong case can be made for Rafael Nadal being considered the most arresting player in the game of tennis. He wears his intensity on his sleeve. He displays emotions almost always on a positive scale, revving himself up even when is down in the scoreline, rousing the crowds by connecting with them unabashedly. He refuses to underestimate any opponent. While other superstars in the world of sports have a tendency toward condescending attitudes about particular adversaries, Nadal is the ultimate professional and a champion who is unfailingly respectful of those who stand on the opposite side of the net. Nadal is a unique individual across the board, a superior sportsman through and through, and a gentleman to his core.
And yet, the Spaniard is working exceedingly hard to recover his old winning ways as he approaches his 31st birthday on the third of June. He has not won a major since the 2014 French Open, when he captured the crown at Roland Garros for the ninth time on the red clay in Paris. He was unable to defend his U.S. Open title in 2014 as an injury to his right wrist kept him away from that tournament. A left wrist injury forced Nadal to withdraw before his third round contest at Roland Garros last year, and kept him out of Wimbledon entirely. Nadal concluded 2016 at No. 9 in the world, the lowest he had finished any year since ascending to No. 2 in 2005.
But Nadal has been working with unbridled passion this year to rediscover the art of winning on a level reminiscent of days gone by. He was agonizingly close to collecting a second Australian Open and 15th Grand Slam tournament title in January, building a 3-1 fifth set lead over Roger Federer in the final at Melbourne. Inconceivably, this renowned closer never won another game as the Swiss Maestro claimed his 18th major spectacularly. Nadal took some time off to heal from a combination of physical and psychic wounds, returning in Acapulco, losing there in the final on the hard courts to Sam Querrey, a player who had never beaten the Spaniard before.
On went Nadal to Indian Wells, where he confronted Federer again, this time in the round of 16. Many authorities believed Nadal would turn the tables on the Swiss as they clashed on a slower hard court. But Federer was primed for that meeting, timing his backhand returns impeccably, taking the ball so early that Nadal seemed constantly rushed from the backcourt. Not only did Federer win, but he defeated his revered rival with astonishing ease by scores of 6-2, 6-3. It was the most comprehensive victory he has ever recorded against Nadal outdoors. In two sets, Federer was not broken, facing only one break point, winning 75% of his second serve points.
That setback surely gave Nadal much cause for consternation. He seemed confounded by the degree of the drubbing he had taken, by his lack of capacity to dictate from the baseline, and by the recipe Federer had cooked up to thwart him. No one in his profession has more pride than Nadal, but what happened to him in California must have been humiliating in some ways.
Be that as it may, he moved on to the Miami Open, determined to make amends, hoping to secure his first title of 2017. Nadal has yet to win this Masters 1000 event in Florida, but he was the runner-up to Federer in 2005 and he has been back in the finals three times since, losing to an inspired Nikolay Davydenko in 2008 and to Novak Djokovic in 2011 and 2014 .
Nadal commenced his campaign this year by upending Dudi Sela in the second round, coming through with one break in each set to prevail 6-3, 6-4. Next he faced Philipp Kohlschreiber, and the free-swinging German clipped Nadal 6-0 in the opening set.
Nadal may have been shellshocked by that whitewash, but if that was the case he did not reveal it. The unwavering left-hander rallied to win 0-6, 6-2, 6-3, finding his range off the forehand, locationally improving his serve, exploiting a rash of errors from an increasingly vulnerable Kohlschreiber. And that win set the stage for Nadal's round of 16 appointment against the Frenchman Nicolas Mahut.
Mahut is now 35, and his best days as a singles player are in his past. The fact remains that he is the world's No. 1 ranked player in doubles. Excelling in that forum of the game keeps Mahut both sharp and dangerous in singles, and he demonstrated that fact sporadically against Nadal. The Frenchman attacked persistently, serving-and-volleying selectively, going to the net unhesitatingly, letting Nadal know that this could be a tricky match.
In the opening set, Nadal was virtually flawless on serve, winning 20 of 24 points on his delivery, backing it up with extraordinary depth and sufficient pace off the ground. He controlled the tempo on his own serve beautifully. At 4-4, Mahut opened with a double fault and fell behind 0-30 when Nadal connected with a crosscourt forehand winner behind the Frenchman. Mahut rallied to 30-30 but then released a flat forehand long. Down break point at 30-40, Mahut served-and-volleyed behind a second delivery. His serve down the T was accurate, and Nadal's return was high. Mahut had the court at his full disposal but netted his backhand first volley. That costly mistake gave Nadal the chance to serve out the set in the tenth game. He did so comfortably. The Spaniard took it 6-4.
The second set was similar in many ways, although this time there were no breaks at all. Nadal's serving numbers were significantly better than Mahut's. The Spaniard won 21 of 23 first serve points (91%) and 7 of 13 second serve points (54%). Mahut took 24 of 33 first serve points (73%) and four of nine on his second serve (44%). But neither man broke serve and it all came down to a tie-break. In that sequence, Nadal was down a mini-break at 1-2 but he then struck gold with a backhand passing shot winner. The Spaniard surged to 5-2 and won the tie-break 7-4 with a vintage inside out forehand winner.
And so Nadal succeeded 6-4, 7-6 (4) to reach the quarterfinals. He will meet Jack Sock on Wednesday evening, and that will be not only a fascinating test but also a clear barometer of where he is in his quest to revisit the top of his game. Nadal has been victorious in his two career duels with Sock, but both were tough showdowns. Nadal won in four sets at the French Open in the round of 16 nearly two years ago. Later in 2015, Nadal came from behind to oust Sock 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 in the quarterfinals of Beijing.
Sock has improved markedly since then, and he no longer lives in awe of the leading players. The crowd will be divided, with many cheering on the American fervently while a good many veteran observers get behind the Spaniard who has such substantial and universal appeal. Nadal does not need to win this tournament because he will soon move out onto his beloved clay. But he would love to break through on the Florida hard courts and at least be competing for the crown on Sunday afternoon.
No matter what happens from here on in, Rafael Nadal has been a central figure again at a Masters 1000 event, captivating the fans with his extraordinary court presence, spurring himself on every step of the way, reminding everyone that he is a singularly appealing fellow who has himself and his life thoroughly in perspective.