Fans waving bed sheets with hand-painted images of Rafael Nadal danced up and down in the aisles, exhorting the second-ranked Spaniard as the second-set tiebreaker began in Beijing.
It was appropriate imagery. Nadal appeared to be everywhere in shrinking the space available to Philipp Kohlschreiber to complete a hard-fought, 6-4, 7-6 (3) victory over the gritty German. It was the 20th straight victory for Nadal, who raised his hard-court record to 24-0 this season by reaching his 13th quarterfinal in 14 tournaments. But it wasn’t quite as routine as the scoreline suggests.
Nadal broke for a 2-0 lead, starting a stretch of four straight breaks before Kohlschreiber held for the first time to level the score at 3-3. By the time Nadal rallied from 15-30 down to hold for 4-3, the physicality of the exchanges left the blue shirts of both men saturated with sweat.
In the ninth game, Kohlschreiber cracked a deep return to set up a forehand volley winner that gave him break point. Nadal answered with an inside-out forehand winner to erase it, eventually holding for 5-4. An aggressive return brought him to set point, and when Kohlschreiber scattered a forehand beyond the baseline, Nadal had his third break to seal the opening set in 52 minutes.
Given their past history—Nadal took the court with a 10-1 career record against the 25th-ranked German, including a 6-0 mark on hard courts—playing catch-up against Rafa must feel as demoralizing as trying to gain ground on a sprinter when your lane is the only one with hurdles. When Rafa is a few feet off the doubles alley yet can still bend a topspin forehand winner down the line over the high part of the net—as he did in the third game of the second set—you can’t fault Kohlschreiber for feeling he’s facing an opponent to whom standard laws of physics don’t always apply.
Credit Kohlschreiber for showing no signs of panic or self-pity. He had three break points in the third game—the only break points of the second set—but Nadal lifted his level in navigating a tricky four-deuce game to hold for 2-1. The quandary Kohlschreiber faces against Nadal is he must squeeze shots closer to the lines to threaten, but successfully repeating it is a high-risk proposition when he’s trying to take Rafa's heavy topspin drives burrowing into his body early. Kohlschreiber was a bit predictable frequently hitting the wide serve on the deuce side to Nadal’s two-handed backhand, but you can understand the logic: He had to try to move Rafa to create some separation for his down-the-line drives.
The world No. 25, playing with adhesive tape wrapped below his right knee, hit a slick stab volley to set up a volley winner, then struck a clean drop shot holding at love to force the tie breaker. With fans rhythmically chanting “Vamos Rafa Vamos!” Nadal turned it up in the breaker, pounding a series of crisp forehands to reel off five points in a row for a 6-2 lead. Blasting a backhand winner down the line, Nadal closed an entertaining one-hour and 54-minute win by throwing a massive fist to celebrate as he continues his quest to try to regain the world No. 1 ranking.