Roland Garros: Nadal d. Nishikori

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Looking back, the fourth-round matchup between Rafael Nadal and Kei Nishikori was over in a hurry. For the first three games, it went one way; for the last 23, it went the other. You wouldn’t know it from the final score—6-4, 6-1, 6-3 in Nadal’s favor—but Nishikori started out red hot. He fired his forehand for winners up the line and had Nadal running hard to cover his crosscourt backhand. When Kei belted an inside-out forehand to earn two break points at 1-2, it looked like Rafa was going to be in for another long day.

This time, though, rather than fall behind early, Nadal responded early. He hit a backhand winner to save one break point and smacked an ace down the T to save the second. He eventually held. Nishikori must have been crushed with disappointment, because he never recovered. He was broken in his next service game on a forehand error, and that scenario was repeated early in the second set. At 0-1, Nishikori earned a break point on Nadal’s serve, only to drill another forehand into the net; again, Nadal held and broke in the next game. This time there was no holding Rafa back. Through the last two sets, he played his freest and best tennis of the tournament so far.

Nadal used his serve well; he kept Nishikori guessing with a mix of balls wide, down the T, and into the body, and he won several 30-30 and break points with service winners. From the ground, Rafa had his down the line forehand and crosscourt backhand clicking; both of those shots are barometers of his confidence. And he defended well, as always. Facing a break point in the final game of the match, Nadal took a strong Nishikori service return and reflexed an equally strong forehand back at him. As for Kei, he made too many errors in general—39, against just 14 winners—and far too many when it mattered. Any time a potentially match-turning point arose, Nishikori could be counted on to lose it with an error. 

Afterward, Nadal celebrated his 27th birthday with a cake on court—he had it today, and he ate it, too. And he won't feel too bad about his immediate future. Rafa plays the winner of Richard Gasquet and Stanislas Wawrinka. His combined record against them: 19-0.

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