NEW YORK—Coming into the U.S. Open, Rafael Nadal had a winning record over every member of the Top 20. But he had a 1-1 record against 38th-ranked Croatian Ivan Dodig, who eliminated him from the Canadian Masters in 2011. The Spaniard, seeded second here, hadn’t dropped serve in the first two rounds, obliterating opponents with the same newly aggressive style that earned him titles in Cincinnati and Montreal this summer.
Nadal’s first- and second-round matches had been blowouts, but his brief history with Dodig was enough to engender hope of a more compelling contest in the third round. And Dodig cuts an imposing presence on the court, with a muscular build—especially his legs and upper torso—and a confident gait.
But it was not to be: Nadal made it clear early that he was unbowed in the face of this former vanquisher, breaking Dodig in the third game. In that break game, two Nadal shots in particular elicited moans of appreciation from the crowd: A spectacular running cross-court forehand pass, and a down-the-line winning return off a 126 M.P.H. serve.
And then came a moment that dashed any prospect of Dodig finding anything approaching a similar level: In the first point of the next game, he came to net behind an approach, and Nadal, on the dead run, hit a passing shot down the line with such force that Dodig fell to the ground trying to get a racquet on it, rolling his right ankle. Shortly thereafter, he asked for the trainer, then a bit later took a medical timeout during which the ankle was taped.
Though his serve and powerful groundstrokes kept the contest from becoming an embarrassment, Dodig was never able to move sufficiently well to threaten Nadal, who ran out the match to a 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 win. (Along the way, John McEnroe, commentating for CBS, wondered aloud repeatedly whether or not Dodig would even finish the match because he seemed so hampered.)
With scarcely any prospect of an upset, Nadal was free to exhibit his newly tooled hard-court game in all its glory, taking the initiative in points, repeatedly running his opponent corner to corner, controlling the center of the court, and frequently coming to net. The transformation, witnessed over two-plus hours,was stunning: Because Nadal struck first most of the time, there was almost none of his belief-defying defense—with a few notable exceptions, such as when he chased down a lob, spun around and sliced the ball past Dodig—that can make his game so entertaining. It was all offense, all the time, or at least as much of the time as was prudent.
Moving into the fourth round, Nadal still has yet to drop his serve in this tournament (he only lost 17 service points in the entire match today), or a set, and is playing the most efficient, daunting tennis of his peers. Novak Djokovic may be the acknowledged king of hard courts, and Andy Murray might own two of the last four Slams, but more and more, Rafael Nadal is looking like the man to beat at this U.S. Open.
IBM Stat of the Match: Nadal won 90 points to Dodig's 63. Oftentimes matches boil down to who plays the big points better, but when one player wins almost 50 percent more points than the other, the rest of the stats become secondary; the gap was just too wide today.
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