The least favour Kei Nishikori did for Rafael Nadal on Monday was to nudge him into second-week wakefulness. The pretenders and upstarts are nearly all gone. The heat now is metaphorical, but no less fierce than last week.
Nadal beat Kishikori 7-6, 7-5, 7-6, but for once it is true that this match was infinitely more closely contested than the scoreline says. Nishikori lost his serve in the first game of the match, a deceptive beginning. He then had point to lead 4-2 in the first set, did lead 4-2 in the second and served to win the third 6-4, and came up empty. For this, he can blame only himself, and the presence of Nadal, lurking in his mind.
Every set took at least an hour. An expectant crowd, blessedly now relieved of the tedious screeching of the Fanatics, was able to express its appreciation in its own way. Nishikori's tennis goes out in Japan on a channel called Wow Wow, this day an onomatopoeiac appellation. At match's end, Nadal led the ovation for Nishikori.
Insanity, said Einstein, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, except in tennis, in which doing the same thing over and over is the way to gaining better results, incrementally. It has been one of the motifs of Nadal's grand career. Look at his peers and their mentors: Djokovic/Becker, Federer/Edberg, Murray/Lendl. Nishikori's is Michael Chang, a one-time major winner. Nadal's is uncle Tony, and always has been.
There is even a little of Sharapova's obsessive-compulsive nature in his finicky rituals between points and games. Actually, he is all that is left of Sharapova in this tournament now.
It works; his record and ranking loudly say so. Nadal brings to tennis the particular grace of left-handers. His off forehand is like Mike Hussey's cover drive; you would pick it as his even if his face and body were photo-shopped out of the image. And like Hussey's drive, knowing that it is coming still does not mean that you can plot to stop it.
At risk of torturing a metaphor, Nishikori's way was leg-stump yorkers. Originally, he was known in Japan as Project 45, the ranking he needed to become his country's highest ever ranked player. That came and went two-and-a-half years ago. Now he is Project 10, and is tantalisingly close. The class of his tennis reflects this development.
So it was that this match became a straight-sets nailbiter. Each point, each game, had to be played out, some several times over, which made breaks inevitable, but also each one separately surprising in its time.
Knowing that no-one can keep pace with Nadal, Nishikori chose to confront him. Stationing himself well inside the court, he came at Nadal like a ninja, and for long stretches made him chase what was always just out of reach, like a dog chasing a bird. "I was in trouble," admitted Nadal. "The ball was coming back very, very quick. It was difficult for me to take a position inside the court."
But Nadal, of course, has played this game many times before, also every other type of game. He paid a price, in blisters, calluses and occasional humiliations. Near the end of the first set, his discourse with uncle Tony incurred a coaching violation warning, of which there has been a blitz in this tournament. Plainly, they were not discussing the next family barbecue. Nadal also was handed two time violations, the second at a critical moment in the third set. Not the least of his assets is composure.
At length, he found a way. Forensically, he unearthed a weakness and focused on it. Nishikori's forehand became like Alastair Cook's cover-drive, the shot on which to play him. And yet that is too simple, too. Nishikori held break points in all exept one of Nadal's service games in the last set, but converted only one, and immediately was broken back. It was that tight.
Nishikori need not hang his head. Project 10 is on track. His best tennis is like origami, made from basic materials, exquisitely crafted. Project 1 is more fanciful, but he is only 24. For now and the forseeable future, Nadal is Numero Uno. And again, the Australian Open, self-styled Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific, is the Grand Slam of Europe/Scandinavia, at least on the men's side. Evidently, that will be plenty enough to keep Nadal fully occupied.
NADAL CALLS FOR UMPIRES WHO UNDERSTAND THE GAME
Rafael Nadal believes the increased use of technology in tennis is causing umpires to lose feeling for how the game is being played, making them worse instead of better.
Nadal was given two time violations during his three-set win, and was also warned for communicating with his coach and uncle, Toni.
The world No. 1 accepted that he needed to take less time before points and that he had breached the rules, but was frustrated he was not warned before given the second time violation at a key moment in the third set.
He said that on particularly hot days or after "crazy" rallies, it was in the interest of the the game that players be given enough time to pull themselves together for the next point.
"The negative thing in my opinion is not the warning. The negative thing is the moment, 4 -all, deuce. You can choose another moment to do it, not that one. Another thing is she didn't advise me before the second warning that I was still going slow," said Nadal.
"The word is not rules or not rules. The word is understand the game.
That's all. We need referees who understand the game. The rules cannot go against the good show. That's all.
"If you are playing with 40 degrees, you cannot expect to have 20 seconds recover, 25 seconds recover. If you are playing crazy rallies, you cannot have 25 seconds recover because then you will not have more rallies because the players cannot have it.
"I accept the rules. Sometimes I am wrong. Sometimes I am too slow and I accept that. I respect the decision of the referee even if I am not happy for that, because it was not the right moment to do it, in my opinion, before an advise. But she did. That's all.
"I going to try to go quicker for the future. But is important to have people on the chair that really understand the game and people who manage this sport who understand the game, and that's it.
"Because, if not, every time with Hawk Eye, the referee just start watching the watch, 25 seconds, then warning, so then we don't need any more referees. We only need lines. That's fine.
"Because if not, the referees don't need to do all the rules. That is my feeling. We are making the referees worse than before with all the things that we are making for them easier." Nadal had a blister tended to during the match, and said its awkward location on the palm of his left hand was more concerning than any pain it had caused.
"Is very difficult to cover that blister here. Is not painful, but I cannot play without that cover today. Is a little bit hard because with that cover, is true, that you can imagine that is something that I didn't use never," said the top seed.
"I used one time in my career, or twice. Is different than the ones I am using every day, that I already feel the ball, feel the racquet with all that. That's something new. The feeling on the racquet is a little bit more difficult."