When play was halted due to a deceptively dangerous mist just three games into his round-of-16 match yesterday, a disgruntled Rafael Nadal was down a break against big-serving fellow lefty Gilles Muller. After just about two hours on court today, the Spaniard had run over the Luxembourgian in straight sets, 7-6 (1), 6-1, 6-2.
Although skies looked grey and imposing just an hour before play was scheduled, the clouds parted just in time, and by 11 a.m., there was a picture-perfect day hanging over Arthur Ashe Stadium.
For Nadal, the optimal conditions were just what the doctor ordered: The defending champion seemed off his game in the early stages, especially on the backhand wing, as passing shots either landed short or in the net. But Muller ultimately proved the shakier player, dropping serve at 2-4, just as Nadal came into his own. Each held serve to 6-all and when the tiebreaker began, Nadal was locked and loaded, firing winners off both wings and pocketing the breaker, 7-1.
By the second set, the gap in variety between the two players was too wide to be ignored: Muller hung his hopes on formidable serving and the hope of getting to net behind the biggest groundstrokes he could muster. It was all too predictable for Nadal, who was in full flight, hitting dipping cross-court passes, lob winners, and unfurling his trademark, squeaking, spinning, lunging defense along the baseline. The turning point seemed to come when, at 3-0, Nadal played two of his best points of the match, running down what seemed to be a serve-and-volley winner and rifling it down the line for a winner of his own, after which Muller dropped his head in resignation. On break point, Nadal produced a lob winner, this time leaving his opponent shaking his head. After just 28 minutes, Nadal owned the second set.
Muller mounted a brief comeback early in the third, breaking in its second game for a 2-0 lead, but Nadal broke back in the next game and sprinted to the finish line, not ceding another game.
Was Nadal’s victory borne of anger over yesterday’s scheduling kerfuffle, or was it—like Roger Federer’s late-night obliteration of Juan Monaco early Tuesday morning—a study in cold, calculated pragmatism? Andy Murray dispatched Donald Young in similarly short order today, and you can bet that Andy Roddick will try to do the same to David Ferrer if he can. (As I write this, Isner and Simon have already traded sets, so the prospects of that match wrapping up in minimal time has already come and gone.) As the tournament races to make up lost time, the men on the bottom half of the draw—one round behind those on top—have much to gain by getting on and off the court in record time. With the prospect of four consecutive days of play before them, it’s not just survival of the fittest, it’ll also be survival of the quickest.