NEW YORK—The greats raise their games, they say, but not many raise them as suddenly and thoroughly—and thrillingly—as Rafael Nadal did over the last two sets of his 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, 6-2 win over Marin Cilic on Monday night.
By the end of the second set, Cilic had a slight edge in momentum. He had begun the match misfiring on his forehand, but had started connecting with it in the second. That change largely meant the difference between a 6-3 first-set loss and a 6-3 second-set win.
How would Rafa respond? He had ceded court position to Cilic, who spent most of the second set inside the baseline. The match was beginning to take on overtones of Stan Wawrinka’s win over Novak Djokovic the previous night—the guy with nothing to lose was playing like he had nothing to lose, and it was working.
Nadal began to find the answer right away in the third. He moved in on Cilic’s second serve, and he began to make the points running contests—side to side, up and back. He knew the big Croat was no match for him when they were both on the move.
Nadal twice reached break point in Cilic’s first service game in the third set, but couldn’t convert. What would it take to break through? We found out when Cilic served again at 1-2. Nadal won two points with spectacular defense that ended with more spectacular offense, and punctuated them with two leaping fist-pumps straight from his teenage years. The crowd, including Tiger Woods, rose with him. All Cilic could do at break point was double fault.
Nadal would win nine straight points, and nine of the next 11 games. Cilic had been staggered by those two punches at the start of the third, and he never regained his balance. Rafa finally delivered the knockout blow in the final game, on the penultimate point, when he sprinted outside the alley, reached a Cilic drop volley an inch before it hit the court, and flicked a forehand around the net post and into the corner for a winner. The crowd, and Tiger Woods, were up again, and they never sat down.
“It’s easy to describe and difficult to make,” Nadal joked with ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi on-court afterwards. “I followed the ball good because he had a good volley. I ran fast to that ball and I [saw] at the last moment, there maybe was a small space from that side. I think it was the only way to win that point.”
Did Nadal throw down the gauntlet for the rest of this now-Djokovic-less draw? You might say that. Aside from his show-stopping shots, he was also impressive with his first serve. He made just 57 percent of them, but he won 83 percent of those points and hit 11 aces. The increased pace also led to six double faults, but a bailout first serve would be a nice weapon for him to have over the next three rounds.
All of that is in the future; tonight, fans in Ashe got a good dose of the Nadal show. Rafa had played just three quick matches coming in, but he got his teeth into the tournament against Cilic. We’ll see how long he hangs on to it.
Watching Wawrinka on Sunday and Nadal on Monday, and the excitement they generated in Ashe, I wondered why we expected tennis players ever to retire. Nadal seemed to feel the same way. When he was asked what keeps him going, he said simply, and only slightly incorrectly: “Nights like today.”
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