INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—For the first five games, and the final seven, Rafael Nadal’s second-round win over Ryan Harrison went by the book. The fifth seed was far the superior player and physical presence, while the overmatched American was forced to try things he normally doesn’t try. During those stretches, Rafa looked much like the Rafa who has won this tournament twice.
Nadal yanked the ball, and his opponent, from corner to corner with his forehand, and he hit his backhand with flat authority. He stretched Harrison wide with his serve and forced him to hit the ball from above his shoulder on the baseline. Best were Nadal's passing shots. He broke Harrison with a sparkling pair of passes, one forehand, one backhand, to take command of the second set. For these periods of his 7-6 (3), 6-2 win, you wouldn’t have known it had been nearly 350 days since Rafa had played a match on a hard court.
But for the other seven games, from the time Nadal was up 4-1 to the time when the two players started the first-set tiebreaker, you might have had an inkling that something wasn't quite right. A combination of wind and nerves and surprising play from Harrison kept Rafa from running away with this match much earlier than he did. He wasn’t consistent enough to take a lead and step on the gas. Serving at 4-2 in the first set, he played a tentative, herky-jerky, error-filled game, letting the ball dance in the wind and smothering it in the net—later he called it with obvious sarcasm, a “fantastic game.” From that point to the breaker, the set was a scrap.
Harrison, whose early experiments with serving and volleying had been dismal failures, now made some inroads with the tactic. He knocked off a couple of volleys and bluffed Rafa into return misses on second serves. Harrison got to 15-30 on Nadal’s serve at 4-4, and had a break point at 5-5. Each time, Nadal used his hook serve to Ryan’s backhand to escape. By the tiebreaker, Nadal was back in control. When he punctuated a rally with a high forehand volley winner for 4-1, the packed house got to its feet. The crisis had passed.
Harrison lost his 17th straight match to a Top 10 opponent, but he’ll have to feel better about this performance than he did after his blitz loss to Novak Djokovic in Australia. Harrison was effective with the serve and volley, and he held his own in all departments for much of the first set—it wasn’t just Rafa’s bad play that made it close. But he also went bigger on his forehand than he normally would, and it cost him. He gave up the first mini-break of the tiebreaker with a slapped forehand that caught the tape. Nadal never trailed from there.
Rafa is back on hard courts, and the crowd at Indian Wells, where he is as popular as he is anywhere else, welcomed him by filling even the top rows of seats. He was shaky at times, and a few times he lost his range as soon as he had found it, but he didn’t appear to be limited physically. He’ll play Leonardo Mayer next.