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Steve Flink: Nadal Sparkles in Beijing

Most tennis critics are writing another chapter today on the enigmatic Nick Kyrgios and his ongoing personal odyssey. They are examining his final round performance in the China Open at Beijing against Rafael Nadal and wondering why the supremely gifted Australian can't cut down substantially on his irrational outbursts. They are at a loss to explain this man's wild unpredictability, to define what makes him lose his cool frequently when he has at times demonstrated the capacity to keep his emotions under control. They are trying to figure out who he really is and precisely what he wants out of his life as a professional tennis player. They know that Kyrgios is a confounding and exasperating character who got in his own way at the outset of his duel with Nadal, and never recovered. They have a valid point.

But the view here is different. What I saw in watching Nadal take apart Kyrgios was an utterly determined 31-year-old who was simply not going to lose this final, an unswerving fellow displaying a striking clarity of match playing vision, and a thoroughly professional athlete going out and doing his job ruthlessly, relentlessly and immaculately. In the end, Nadal defeated Kyrgios 6-2, 6-1 to claim his 75th ATP World Tour career title, securing his sixth tournament triumph of 2017, widening his lead over Roger Federer in the Race to London to 2360 points. In my view, collecting the 500 points he garnered for ruling in Beijing was the driving force behind Nadal's unbridled intensity all week in China. He wanted this tournament more than anything else for the purpose of putting himself in a commanding position to close out 2017 as the top ranked player in the world. He enjoyed that status in 2008, 2010 and 2013, and now seems very likely to conclude a fourth year in his spectacular career as the best player on the planet. That would be a gigantic achievement.

In Kyrgios, the Spaniard confronted a player who had prevailed 6-2, 7-5 in their last head to head meeting at Cincinnati in August. The mercurial Kyrgios has spoken freely of his clear preference for testing his talent and mettle against the sport's immortal figures. He stopped Federer a few years ago in Madrid and nearly succeeded again in a stupendous showdown at Miami this past spring when he was two points away from a three set win. He not only upended Nadal in that Cincinnati appointment, but took also downed the dynamic left-hander on the Centre Court of Wimbledon in 2014. Earlier this year, he halted Novak Djokovic twice on hard courts, moving through four sets against the Serbian without losing his serve.

Given that record of achievement against the game's hierarchy—only Andy Murray among the "Big Four" has not lost to Kyrgios—it was understandable why it seemed entirely possible to some learned observers that the Australian might topple Nadal in their Beijing showdown. But an incident in the opening game of the match distracted Kyrgios beyond all reason. He had commenced the battle in fine fiddle. He took the first point with a clean backhand winner down the line, lost the next two points, but then made it to 30-30 with a beautifully angled forehand crosscourt setting up a forehand winner up the line. An excellent backhand return drew Nadal into an error, and so the Australian arrived at 30-40, one point away from an immediate break.

Kyrgios unleashed a scorching backhand crosscourt and Nadal was clearly in trouble. But the Australian's shot was called wide. He challenged correctly, and so the point had to be replayed. Now Kyrgios netted a backhand, making an unforced error. He missed another two-hander to give Nadal game point, and the top seed held on for 1-0 with a well-placed wide serve eliciting an errant return. As the players changed ends of the court, Kyrgios expressed his frustration with the errant call to umpire Mohamed Lahyani, but what did he expect from the singularly revered man in the chair?

There was nothing Lahyani could have done short of overruling, but Kyrgios's shot had clipped the edge of the sideline so it was not a likely time for an overrule from the umpire. Moreover, the situation would have been the same had Lahyani made the overrule: the point would have been replayed because Nadal had sent a forehand back into play. The Spaniard would almost surely have lost the point, but Kyrgios should have been able to leave aside his misfortune and forgotten about what happened.

He vented with Lahyani on a bunch of occasions as the set progressed. But the fact remained that this agitated individual kept competing hard. Down 0-40 in the second game, he took a short return from the Spaniard and sent a forehand behind Nadal for a winner. Consecutive aces lifted Kyrgios back to deuce. Nadal came forward for a backhand drop volley winner to garner a fourth break point opportunity, but a forceful backhand crosscourt from Kyrgios coaxed an error from Nadal off the forehand. Kyrgios had a couple of game points before Nadal advanced to break point for the fifth time. Kyrgios, however, remained eager, saving himself this time with a sparkling forehand drop shot winner.

After five deuces, despite continuously muttering to himself about the call in the first game, regardless of his irritation, Kyrgios held on for 1-1. Down 15-30 in the third game, Nadal approached behind a deep forehand inside in, and Kyrgios never had a chance to make a pass. A deep forehand crosscourt from Nadal provoked an error from Kyrgios, and then Nadal moved forward to win the next point convincingly at the net.

The Spaniard held at 30 to lead 2-1, and soon found himself with a break point in the fourth game at 30-40. Kyrgios once more fought his way out of danger, moving in to put a forehand volley into the clear. After two deuces, he held on resolutely for 2-2, closing that game with an ace out wide—one of only eight he would serve in the match. Nadal had been denied again, but he seemed undismayed. He held for 3-2 at love. Nadal's returns and rally shots in the next game were first rate. He reached 15-40, and now, on his seventh break point of the set, the Spaniard converted as Kyrgios netted a forehand drop shot.

An ace and a penetrating forehand crosscourt gave Nadal a 30-0 lead in the seventh game, but Kyrgios released a dazzling backhand return winner and then came at Nadal unhesitatingly with a cluster of magnificent forehands. Under siege, Nadal netted a backhand. It was 30-30. But the Spaniard responded with verve. He went wide in the deuce court to the Kyrgios forehand with a clutch first serve. The No. 8 seed erred on the return. At 40-30, Nadal placed his first impeccably serve wide, and an outstretched Kyrgios netted the return. It was 5-2 for the world No. 1.

At the changeover, Kyrgios let loose with another verbal flurry at Lahyani, and, having already been warned earlier, was justifiably assessed a point penalty. That meant that the Australian started the eighth game down 0-15. He lost the next point before rallying to 30-30. But then, going down the T at 201kilometers, taking a big risk, he double faulted. He double faulted again at 30-40. Set to Nadal, 6-2.

Kyrgios remained perturbed by the occurrence in the first game, but the larger story was Nadal's soaring level of play. Nevertheless, Kyrgios created a 15-40 opening on Nadal's serve in the opening game of the second set, giving himself a chance for a clean slate. Nadal, though, recognized the magnitude of the moment. He came forward behind a heavy forehand and then rolled a winning backhand down the line behind Kyrgios. That made it 30-40. The Spaniard followed with a scorching first serve down the T that was too much for Kyrgios to handle. Deuce. After a second deuce, Nadal held on for 1-0 with two unanswerable first serves in a row to his opponent's backhand.

That was a critical hold. Kyrgios had played his best return game of the match since the opening game of the contest, and had gone unrewarded. He opened the second game of the second set with a double fault, drifted to 0-30 with a forced error off the backhand but found his way back to 30-30 with an unstoppable first serve down the T and then an exquisitely orchestrated point from the backcourt, keeping Nadal on a string in that exchange. But Nadal reached 30-40 with a flattened out backhand crosscourt that rushed Kyrgios into an error on the stretch off the forehand. Down break point, Kyrgios caught the net tape with an inside out forehand. On to 2-0 went the redoubtable Nadal.

After Nadal took a 15-0 lead in the third game, Kyrgios connected with a gorgeous backhand down the line winner and then Nadal pressed slightly on a crosscourt backhand, sending that shot long for 15-30. Nadal got to 30-30 but double faulted for the first and only time in the match. At break point down, Nadal turned into a brick wall. On the 20th stroke of the rally, after throwing some heavy artillery at Nadal and some nice variety as well, Kyrgios drove a two-hander long. Nadal eventually held on his second game point with a service winner down the T, lengthening his lead to 3-0.

On his way to 40-0 in the fourth game, Kyrgios served a pair of aces down the T. But then he double faulted twice over the next three points, allowing Nadal back to deuce. Kyrgios fended off a break point after another double fault, but served an ace for his fourth game point, only to net a forehand off a clever sliced backhand from Nadal. The Spaniard soon earned a second break point chance. Kyrgios saved that one with a leaping backhand winner off a short forehand return. The determined Australian served his fourth ace of the game—half of his total for the entire match— to reach game point for the fifth time, but netted a forehand drop shot. Nadal was not letting go, not for an instant. He was playing every point with deep determination and total concentration. He made it to break point for the third time. Kyrgios served-and-volleyed on a second delivery, and the Spaniard was undaunted, lacing a forehand return winner down the line. After five deuces, Nadal persisted, deservedly securing the break for 4-0.

He held at 30 for 5-0 before Kyrgios ended a nine-game losing streak in holding for 1-5. Serving for the match, Nadal closed it out calmly from 30-30, taking the last two points to complete a devastatingly decisive 6-2, 6-1 victory. To be sure, Kyrgios injured himself with his attitude, carrying on for far too long after his early misfortune. But Nadal was by far the better player and would surely have won under any circumstances. He stood way back on the return of serve in a manner reminiscent of his performance against Kevin Anderson in the U.S. Open final, and his ability to get balls back into play off big serves with regularly decent depth clearly weighed on Kyrgios's mind.

Kyrgios ended the match at 48% on first serves. He won only 68% of those first serve points, which is a low number for him. Nadal read that serve with uncanny regularity. He forced Kyrgios to think hard about where he wanted to go and what he wanted to do with his first serve, and the confusion in the Australian's mind led him unwisely to serve-volley a few times. Nadal made Kyrgios uncomfortable throughout the match with his capacity to get returns back in play. Moreover, he treated the Australian's commendable second serve like it was a lollipop, winning 70% of the points on Kyrgios's second delivery. On top of that, the Spaniard served with terrific locational variety, came up with outstanding deliveries when they were most needed, and both attacked and defended from the backcourt tremendously. Although Kyrgios made the Spaniard's task easier with his emotional vulnerability, Nadal was masterful in every way.

And yet, the tournament was almost over for Nadal as soon as it began. He faced the Frenchman Lucas Pouille in the first round. It was the first time they had played since the 2016 U.S. Open, when Pouille stunned Nadal in five sets after the Spaniard led 4-3, 30-0 in the final set. Pouille is one crafty competitor. He came into Beijing stationed at No. 23 in the world, standing only one place lower in the Race to London. Having finished 2016 at No. 15 in the world, his form may have declined slightly across the 2017 season, but no more so than that.

Pouille took the first set from Nadal in Beijing and then served at 6-4, double match point, in the second set tie-break. Nadal's return was short but Pouille netted a routine forehand down the line that could have sealed the verdict. Now Nadal served at 5-6, still down match point. He came in behind an inside out forehand and played a fine finesse volley down the line, pulling Pouille forward. The Frenchman netted an arduous backhand crosscourt pass. Nadal swiftly collected the next two points to win the tie-break 8-6. At 5-5 in the third, he broke Pouille and then served out the match to win 4-6, 7-6 (6), 7-5. Each man broke serve only once in three high quality sets. Ultimately, Nadal prevailed with grit, gumption and a measure of luck.

His form would improve significantly with every passing match. In a 6-3, 6-3 triumph over Karen Khachanov, Nadal dismissed the Russian without losing his serve. Next up on his agenda was big John Isner, the 6'10" American. Isner had never ousted Nadal in six previous official matches, but he had just beaten the Spaniard at the Laver Cup indoors at Prague. Beyond that, Isner was striking the ball cleanly and serving prodigiously in the first two rounds of Beijing, casting aside Malek Jaziri 6-2, 6-3 and obliterating Leonardo Mayer 6-0, 6-3.

But Nadal completely outplayed Isner in a 6-4, 7-6 (0) victory, commencing the tie-break with a nifty backhand topspin lob down the line winner, never looking back. That set the stage for Nadal's most enjoyable contest of the tournament against Grigor Dimitrov, not since their dazzling five set semifinal at the Australian Open—won by the Spaniard from a break down at 4-3 in the fifth set—had these two immensely appealing players clashed, and they gave the Chinese fans all they could ask for.

This one was almost as enticing as their confrontation in Melbourne. Nadal came out of the gates much sharper than Dimitrov and more sure of what he wanted to do. He broke the Bulgarian once in the first set, and was impenetrable most of the way on serve. In four of his five service games, he captured 16 of 17 points. The only tense moment he had was at 4-2. He trailed 15-40 on his delivery, but swept four points in a row to hold for 5-2—all with winners. The first was a forehand drop shot. Next he angled a backhand crosscourt out of reach. Then he rolled a backhand down the line into the clear off a drop shot from Dimitrov, And finally he came through with a backhand drop volley down the line on the stretch that was unreachable for Dimitrov.

Nadal was unshakable in that first set. He nearly broke the battle wide open when he led 2-0 in the second set and twice reached break point in the third game. On the first, he went for a forehand down the line return off a second serve but caught the net tape. Bad luck. Dimitrov erased the second with an inside out forehand winner. Too good. Nadal then lost his serve at 3-2, saving two break points but unable to escape on the third. Dimitrov raised his return game considerably at that juncture and Nadal's ground game—especially the backhand—went slightly awry.

Dimitrov was back in business. With Nadal serving at 4-5, the Spaniard saved a set point, twice moved to game point, but was broken for the set when Dimitrov intelligently anticipated a pattern play of Nadal's. The southpaw approached on the Dimitrov forehand and then played a backhand drop volley down the line. Dimitrov came forward swiftly and elegantly, sending a backhand crosscourt passing shot into a wide open space. It was one set all.

The third set was superbly contested by both players. In the first game, Dimitrov fought off three break points steadfastly, but Nadal stung him on the fourth, winning a 20-stroke exchange with an acutely angled forehand crosscourt that a lunging Dimitrov could barely touch. After all of that hard work, Nadal had the break. The Spaniard trailed 30-40 in the second game but caught Dimitrov slightly off guard with an inside out forehand drop shot. Dimitrov got to it but netted a forehand down the line. Nadal then went to game point, only to be stymied by a crackling backhand down the line winner from Dimitrov.

Locked at deuce, Nadal opened up freely off the forehand. An inside in winner off that flank took him to game point for the second time, and he held for 2-0 with a forehand winner up the line that was set up by a wide serve. Serving in the third game, Dimitrov was still thoroughly in the hunt. He led 40-30, but Nadal got to deuce with an effective forehand down the line that provoked a mistake from the Bulgarian. A running forehand passing shot winner gave Nadal break point, but an inspired Dimitrov punched a forehand volley winner into an open space after anticipating Nadal's forehand down the line pass. Dimitrov reached game point for the second time, but Nadal was the aggressor as he got to deuce, using a penetrating forehand down the line to open up a backhand down the line. Dimitrov could not respond adequately off the backhand. Now Nadal garnered a second break point with a well struck backhand pass down the line, but Dimitrov wiped it away with an inside out forehand winner.

And yet, Nadal was implacable. A forehand drop shot winner down the line gave the Spaniard a third break point. This one he converted as Dimitrov wilted at last, tamely netting a backhand. Nadal had the second break for 3-0 after four deuces and countless magical moments from both participants. Nadal held at love for 4-0. He seemed certain to run out the match comfortably.

Not so fast. After Dimitrov held in the fifth game, Nadal was behind 0-40 in the sixth game. Once again he brought out his best stuff when it counted. An inventive low sliced backhand passing shot crosscourt from the Spaniard landed safely for a winner and made it 15-40. A forehand drop shot winner lifted him back to 30-40. A wide serve created an opening for a forehand winner down the line: deuce. Dimitrov then missed a backhand down the line pass on the dead run, and Nadal held on mightily with a forehand winner down the line, capturing five points in a row for 5-1. Dimitrov had played a terrific final set, but Nadal was the decidedly better big point player. It was extraordinarily spellbinding tennis from two players who bring out the best in each other. Nadal was the victor 6-3, 4-6, 6-1, but the scoreline was very misleading.

Across a productive week, Nadal improved with every match, elevating his game to a level perhaps slightly higher than how he performed down the stretch at the U.S. Open. In five matches and twelve sets, he lost his serve only three times. He raised his winning streak to 12 matches in a row. He seldom looked apprehensive and almost always seemed confident. He unmistakably wanted those 500 ranking points. Now Nadal heads into Shanghai and the homestretch of the 2017 season knowing what a good chance he has to finish up at the very top of the ladder, realizing that this is an honor he must not allow to slip from his grasp, and appreciating that Beijing may well turn out to be a title run with lasting implications.

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