TORONTO—Rafael Nadal pulled out his best tennis when he needed it the most to take out Stan Wawrinka on Thursday night at the Rogers Cup. After plenty of momentum swings, it was the world No. 1 left standing, entering the quarterfinals by a tight, 7-5, 7-6 (4) margin.
"To have success on these kind of surfaces, I need to play first thing well and then aggressive," Nadal said. "It's true that if you don’t play well, it's hard to be aggressive. Every match has been so difficult and a great test for me."
The odds were stacked against Wawrinka, who is only rediscovering his form after an extended injury absence, before the match began. To pull off the upset, he needed a perfect storm of everything to fall into place. Instead, a storm ruined his chances.
The world No. 195 had the first look at a lead when he had triple break point at 4-4. Instead, Nadal stepped up and reeled off the next five points. Wawrinka nearly cracked in the next game, giving Nadal a set point opportunity, but the Spaniard couldn’t convert. Soon after, at 6-5, with Wawrinka serving, the sky opened up, and 47-minute rain delay ensued.
They returned to play with all the pressure on Wawrinka. The match-rusty Swiss barely stood a chance as a focused Nadal pulled off the break behind an insane backhand cross-court slice passing shot.
Nadal had a lot going for him heading into this encounter, including a 16-3 head-to-head record and 38 matches in 2018 to Wawrinka’s 17. Wawrinka has stressed all week how much he wants to see his progress in practice translate to matches. Now he's certainly seen it.
"I’m very happy to see Stan playing so well again. I know how tough it is from my personal experience [to come back]," Nadal said. "If he is healthy, I have no doubt he will be back in the right position and fighting for the biggest events."
Wawrinka can’t be too disappointed as he truly pushed the 17-time Grand Slam champion to play his best, thrilling the crowd that stayed late to watch these titans battle. The Swiss raised his own level in the second set, particularly off his famous backhand wing.
"Twenty minutes before I was coming back from rain delay, [up] 7-5, 2-0," Nadal said. "Then Stan started to hit the ball faster, very aggressive. He played a fantastic game to break me back. Then I had a bad game in the next service game. I just had a feeling I need to play a little bit more aggressive."
Wawrinka needed to take that advice, as he had chances to extend the match. After a shift in momentum and two breaks, Wawrinka was up 5-3, and served for the set at 5-4.
But he opened the door a tiny crack, and that was all the ever-competitive Nadal needed to force a tiebreak. From there, it was clear the 32-year-old had no desire to go three sets, and a blistering forehand return winner sealed his spot in the quarterfinals.
"I [fought]. I stayed with the right attitude," Nadal said. "I won the mach. I’m very happy with that."
Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Alexander Zverev headline the Rogers Cup in Toronto. Watch live coverage from four courts on Tennis Channel Plus beginning Monday, August 6th at 11:00 A.M.