To borrow from Mark Twain, reports of his Rafael Nadal’s demise have been greatly exaggerated over the past week. Like a true champion, he is peaking at the right time, as he proved in dispatching No.13 seed and bright young thing of the ATP circuit Kei Nishikori with a minimum of fuss, 6-4, 6-1, 6-3, to book a quarter-final berth.
Having seen Nadal lose the opening set against Daniel Brands and Martin Klizan and then battle through two breaks of service to squeeze home in a tie-break in the opener against Fabio Fognini, the crowd were on tenterhooks to see how the king of clay would fare in the opening exchanges with the Japanese phenom. And in the fourth game of the match, an opportunity duly presented itself. Rafa ran around a forehand only to over-hit it and found himself 1-2, 15-40 down. “Break time!” shouted an excitable fan from the stands, but Nadal was in no mood for pleasantries.
Eight points later, the scoreboard again read 15-40, but this time it was on Nishikori’s service. Rafa had held behind some big services and turned the tables on his opponent, and though the world No.15 warded off those two break points, Nadal immediately created – and took – a third. The stage was set.
As the match wore on, Nadal pulled further and further clear, revelling in the sunshine which had finally deigned to put in an appearance on Philippe Chatrier Court. This was Rafa time, and the ball was finally obeying the Majorcan magician’s command as in days of yore. The yellow orbs at last began to grip the warm clay and dance up to a near-unplayable shoulder height, forcing Nishikori into uncomfortable and inevitably overcooked forehands. The 23-year-old from Japan failed to find any kind of rhythm, perhaps struggling to re-acclimatise to the sun after three previous (and decidedly chilly) 11 am starts for the benefit of the TV station broadcasting all of his matches back home.
"I started well, trying to use my backhand crosscourt, and everybody knows he's gonna try to hit forehand and try to open up the court. Then one bad game for me, and he started playing well," said a disappointed Nishikori after the match. "The second set, I was a little too passive, defensive. He was hitting more (on the forehand) and I was running side to side more than in the first set. His ball was bouncing up and moving around - everything was on his side."
Nadal finished the match off with a big service and perfect follow-up forehand which kissed the line, which was the cue for the crowd to launch an impromptu but now traditional chorus of “Joyeux anniversaire” for the birthday boy. The neo-27-year-old is now on a 25-match win streak here at the French – and few would bet against him having more wins than candles by the end of the week.
"He's a candidate to be top ten without any doubt," said Nadal of Nishikori. "If he can just play a little bit more consistent, that's the only thing he can improve. I played much better in this match than the first three rounds, no doubt about that. If you told me two days ago I would play like this, I would say 'Give me the paper and I will sign'."