Rafa’s straight-sets roll runs to semis

  • Michael Beattie

Former Australian Open champion Rafael Nadal is through to the semifinals at Melbourne Park for a sixth time after ending the run of unseeded 21-year-old Frances Tiafoe on Tuesday night, downing the American 6-3 6-4 6-2. 

It was a front-runner’s victory from the 17-time Grand Slam champion, who broke in Tiafoe’s opening service game of all three sets to ease to victory and set up a final-four clash with another surging tyro, No.15 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas. 

“For me it’s very emotional to be back in the semifinals here in Melbourne,” said Nadal, who was forced to retire against Marin Cilic in the last eight in 2018. “In the past I had some troubles at this event, so to play and be back to that semifinal means everything to me.

“I feel lucky to be where I am, after all the things I went through, to still be competing at this level. That’s why I wake up every morning and go to the court or the gym, with the goal to be a better player.”

Keeping the rallies short and hitting 10 aces with his revised service motion, Nadal was simply a bridge too far for Tiafoe in his first Grand Slam quarterfinal. The world No.39’s only glimmer of hope came early in the second set, when two brilliant rallies brought him a pair of break points, but the chances came and went.

When the Spaniard broke in the opening game of the third, Tiafoe’s race was run. The American did what he could to stay in touch with Nadal, firing a hat-trick of aces to get on the board at 2-1 down, but a second break handed the 2009 champion the chance to wrap things up in one hour, 47 minutes.

After beating up on Australians in the first three rounds, Nadal extended his winning run against Americans at the majors to 21 matches with victory over Tiafoe. You have to go back to James Blake’s third-round win at the 2005 US Open for his last Grand Slam loss to a US player, a streak the world No.39 never looked in danger of stopping.

From the outset, Nadal was in charge. With two love holds sandwiched his first break of the set as the 2009 champion raced to a 3-0 lead after eight minutes, memories of the Spaniard’s nine-game surge at the start of his fourth-round win over Tomas Berdych abounded. 

But Tiafoe didn’t reach his first Grand Slam quarterfinal without proving his battling qualities, and the 21-year-old dug in for a fight. He wouldn’t claw back that opening break, but denied the 17-time Grand Slam champion another as the opener passed in 30 minutes.

Nadal's service game was both effective and efficient

That time is a testament to Nadal’s desire to shorten the points here at Melbourne Park in 2019, minimising the impact on his body having withdrawn or retired from 16 of his last 17 hard-court tournaments over the past 18 months. 

He has now spent 10 hours and 25 minutes on court through the first five rounds, some three hours and 15 minutes less than he spent on court at Melbourne Park in 2018 before his retirement against Marin Cilic at the same stage last year. 

“I’ve been practicing during the whole off-season the serve and first shot, and during this event I’ve probably done it more times than ever – serve and winner with the first forehand,” admitted Nadal, who hit 13 of his 29 winners off his dominant wing. 

“That’s something that is very important for me, both today and if I want to keep playing for a few years. That gives me a lot of free points, and that’s so important at this stage of my career.”

Another Nadal break followed at the start of the second set, but Tiafoe rallied to bring up a break-back point at 2-1 down at the end of a lung-burning 20-shot rally that dragged both players from tramline to tramline. Nadal averted the danger with a big serve, and played his way out of trouble when the American fashioned a second at deuce to move 3-1 ahead.

A vintage forehand winner from way outside the court helped Nadal to a 3-2 lead, and with that the damage was done. Tiafoe couldn’t fashion another opening on the Nadal serve, and with another couple of breaks in the decider the 32-year-old finished at a canter, adding the American’s scalp to that of Alex De Minaur ahead of his clash with a third up-and-comer in Tsitsipas.

Points won on first serve (%)
84 Rafael Nadal
70 Frances Tiafoe

“I said before they can wait to beat us, but it looks like they don’t want to wait,” Nadal joked. “They are here – Frances here in the quarterfinals, and Stefanos now in the semifinals. It’s going to be a great year in terms of sharing generations. That makes this sport special, too.

“When you face these young players, they are in permanent improvement,” he added, before turning his thoughts to Tsitsipas. “He's with confidence. He won a lot of good matches. Will be a tough one.

“For me is always the same: you are in the semifinals of a Grand Slam, you can't expect an easy opponent. Stefanos is one of the best players of the world. To have the chance to be in that final, I need to play my best, and that's what I am looking for.”