“For once, it had been Ferrer who had been a step ahead of Nadal, who had opened up the points with his backhand, who had lasted longer in the rallies and come through in the critical moments. Maybe we'll look back on this as the day when he finally let himself believe that he belonged in the Top 4 in the world, that he deserved his No. 4 seeding at Roland Garros...”
By then Ferrer was up 15-30 on Nadal’s serve and looked to be charging to victory. On the two previous points, Ferrer had a hit a winner with his forehand while Nadal had floated an easy version of the same shot long. Now Ferrer had the advantage in the 15-30 point. He ran forward to knock off a sitter forehand, while Nadal staggered back into no-man’s land. But rather than hit the shot into the open court, Ferrer tried to go behind Nadal. The ball landed close to Rafa, who reflexed a backhand stab lob over Ferrer’s head and eventually won the point with an overhead.
I stopped writing the article in my head and put an asterisk next to that 15-30 point in my notebook: “RN stab lob*”. We talk about turning points in tennis all the time, but it’s rare when you can narrow one down to a single two-shot combination. It’s even rarer when you can recognize it as it’s happening. But that’s what this was. Nadal would hold serve with two forehand winners. Ferrer, so close to his first win over Rafa on clay in nearly a decade, would play rattled tennis in the subsequent tiebreaker, missing makeable returns, double-faulting at 3-5, and losing 7-3. The third set would go entirely in Rafa’s direction and end in a somewhat somber and bittersweet 4-6, 7-6 (3), 6-0 victory for him. Nadal tempered his celebration in the face of his friend’s collapse, and clapped as Ferrer walked off a loser to him for the 18th time.
Rafa must have known there had been some luck involved in this escape. He had played poorly through most of the first two sets, especially from his backhand side, and spent much of his time in the unusual position of scrambling to track down Ferrer’s angled ground strokes. A time warning at 1-2 in the first set had made Nadal shake his head in disgust, and he struggled more than I’ve ever seen him to get his concentration back. He was broken in that game and played the rest of the set in an uncharacteristically subdued state. But while he went down 2-4 in the second as well, Rafa never let go of the match. He hit three winners to break at love for 3-4; he hit two lines at 30-30 in the next game, before coming up with an ace to hold; and he held off a game point to break at 4-4. Ten years of wins over Ferrer on clay must have helped Nadal believe that he could come back, no matter what the score was or how badly he was playing.
Should Ferrer feel good about nearly doing what had seemed impossible for so long? Or should he feel even worse for not doing it in the end? I’d guess right now his emotions would tend toward the latter, but after a few days he may start to think differently. He was the better, more assertive shotmaker for much of this match. Then he made the wrong choice at 5-6, 15-30, and it was all over. Maybe if the situation arises again, Ferru will go to the open court. But if you’re looking for hints as to how a French Open match-up between them might play out, this one doesn't make things look worse for Nadal. If Ferrer can’t keep his momentum going all the way through two sets, what are the chances he can do it for three?
Nadal, who has still never lost a quarterfinal on clay, moves on to the semis to face the winner of Andujar and Nishikori. I’m not sure how many semis Rafa has lost on dirt, but you would have to favor him in that one.