INDIAN WELLS, Calif.—“I was more nervous than passive, no? Because I never had to arrive to this tiebreak. That’s my feeling, no? You know, when you arrive at that tiebreak of the third set with a serve like [my opponent's], he was really serving well, no? I know that it’s gonna be very dangerous. The second point of the tiebreak was very important.”
Rafael Nadal could easily have uttered these words after his three-hour, 4-6, 7-6 (10), 7-5 quarterfinal loss to Milos Raonic on Friday. But he actually said them at this event five years ago, after being defeated in the semifinals by the man who was squinting in Raonic’s coaching box this afternoon, Ivan Ljubicic. On that day Nadal had numerous chances to break Ljubicic’s serve in the third set, but he couldn’t quite get over the hump and lost it in a tiebreaker. Rafa kept running and hitting and creating chances; Ljuby kept snuffing them out with his serve.
The teacher taught his student well, because Raonic did exactly the same thing to Nadal today. He hit 19 aces, saved six break points and three match points, and survived a relentless series of assaults on his service games in the second set before eventually squeaking through in a breaker. There was even a sense of déjà vu in Rafa’s reference to the “second point of the tiebreak” in his quote about the Ljubicic match. I don’t remember what happened at that moment in 2010, but on the second point of the tiebreaker today, Nadal committed his only double-fault in all three sets.
In 2010, Rafa had an interesting word for his loss to Ljubicic: He called it an “accident.” In that type of match, he felt, he would normally come up with the one shot that he needed to win. He used the same word to describe his loss to Raonic, but he sounded all of the same notes, and maintained the same defiantly level-headed perspective that he had five years ago. Asked if he had been “tired” at the end of this match, Rafa said this:
“I was tired? I was not tired. I had more opportunities than him in the first, in the second, and in the third, too. That’s the real thing about what happened during the match. The real thing is I am happy the way I played. I am happy the way that I stayed in a level during the whole match. I am not happy that I lost. That’s it.”
Nadal admitted to one regrettable return, and one wrong choice on a passing shot.
Up 10-9 in the tiebreaker, he had a look at a second serve, ran around it to hit a forehand, and...barely managed to get the ball to the net. “Big mistake,” Rafa said. But this wasn’t the first (or second or third or fourth or even the hundredth) time that Nadal has tightened up on a second-serve return on an important point. His opponents may even be better off missing their first serves in these cases; the second ball gives him more time to think, which is not something you want in tennis.
As for Rafa’s wrong choice on a pass, it came with him up 15-40 on Raonic’s serve at 2-2 in the second. Nadal ran for a forehand; instead of hooking the ball down the line—“the banana," as he calls it—which had worked for him a few times today, he tried to go back crosscourt and left the ball in the middle of the court.
“Maybe it was the moment to do it down the line,” Nadal said. “The banana. But was not the case. I thought that he will cover that part of the court and I went for the other one. A mistake or not? I don’t know. You know.”
A mistake? Yes, at the time I thought it was. But I also liked Nadal’s thoughts today about not giving into the temptation to look back and analyze (and agonize over) every squandered opportunity, every moment when the match could have gone the other way. There are bound to be dozens of them in a long three-setter against a player like Raonic.
“At the end,” Rafa said, “sport is like this, and at the end we cannot analyze all the things thinking two or three balls, because that will not be fair for me, for nobody. At the end we have to analyze a little bit more overall.”
I’m not sure I’ve ever thought it about that way, but it’s true: It’s not fair to yourself to put the weight of an entire three-hour match on a single return of serve or passing shot. Anyone can miss any shot at any time.
“In the end,” Nadal continued in this philosophical vein, “sport is win or lose, but today I lost against a great opponent who was fighting for every ball with a very positive attitude.”
There’s no question that Raonic deserves credit for his fight and attitude today. It was his first win in six matches against Nadal, and just his second against the Big 3 in 20 tries. Raonic said afterward that he has begun to learn from all of those defeats.
“Just gives me a sense of OK, what do I want to do different this time than the last few times,” he said. “It’s having a better match judgement of when to sort of step up, when you can hold back.... I think when you have knowledge, when you have an understanding, it gives you some kind of calm during a match.”
Raonic can appear calm to the point of comatose at times, but that's what was called for in this case. Even when he went down break points early in the second set, and match points later, there was never a sense that he was out of it. Having a 140-m.p.h. serve in your back pocket tends to make a man a little more self-assured, of course; but that shouldn’t detract from Raonic’s success. It’s not as if he was born with that serve; he developed it the same way that Nadal developed his forehand. Plus, late in the each of the last two sets, Raonic's ground strokes found their marks.
Is this a breakthrough for Raonic, or an accident? (Watching him roll past Tommy Robredo in the last round, I had the fleeting thought that he might win the tournament, but now I doubt now that he’ll be able to come back a day later and beat Federer.) Does 24 still count as young and up-and-coming in tennis, or has he found his level? Is Raonic a future No. 1, or is he this decade’s Ljubicic, a guy who has a weapon big enough to help him pull off an occasional upset, but who doesn't have the complete game needed to do it consistently? Milos hit a lot of aces today, but he also sent a lot of balls flying 20 feet out.
Asked a version of these questions today, Nadal was guardedly positive about Raonic’s future.
"[In] one match,” he said, “you can beat everybody serving like this, no?...So let’s see. Let’s see. He’s young. It’s the normal thing, normal process. He will keep going up the rankings and will be more consistent.”
Nadal, despite his loss, was more positive about his own future.
“I think every week I am better,” Rafa said. “Every week I am more competitive. Every week I feel stronger, quicker on the court again. My focus on the match is becoming better every match. Today I was able to compete against a top player without a feeling that he was better than me. So that’s a big improve.”
Does that sound familiar? Here's Rafa after losing to Ljubicic at Indian Wells in 2010 (that year, like this year—and like every year in between, it seems—he was in the midst of a comeback):
“This is a process,” he said then, “and I have to keep going slowly better and better. I am ready, because I did well...I was a very good competitor, and I gonna be a very good competitor again and winner another time, no?”
Nadal was right: He was a winner at each of the three remaining Grand Slams in 2010. What does 2015 have in store for him? As he would surely say: Let's see.
Like Raonic, whether or not he scales those same heights this year, it's good to see him climbing.