MONTREAL – The marquee match on a busy quarter-final Saturday at the Rogers Cup ended up being the biggest dud of them all.
Was it Japan's Kei Nishikori, who had never beaten Rafael Nadal, who played at such a high level? Or was it Rafael Nadal, who had looked good if unspectacular so far this week, who failed to meet the challenge?
As is usually the case in a tennis match, a one-on-one battle of skills and wits, it was both. Nishikori is the No. 4 seed while Nadal was down at No. 7, so the result on the court ended up being consistent with the result on paper.
Nishikori prevailed 6-2, 6-4 in just an hour and 22 minutes, and will meet No. 2 seed Andy Murray in one semi-final Saturday. Novak Djokovic, who saved two match points in the second-set tiebreaker against qualifier Ernests Gulbis of Latvia before prevailing 5-7, 7-6 (7), 6-1, will meet unseeded Jérémy Chardy of France.
Nishikori had won just two sets against Nadal in seven previous meetings although in the last one, more than a year ago on clay in the Madrid final, he was well on his way to victory before suffering from back issues and being forced to retire.
But this Nadal, faced with an opponent of the highest quality playing his best tennis, was not the Nadal of a few years ago. We know this about him – Nadal knows this about himself – but it remains jarring to see him dominated, bereft, without any solutions beyond his emblematic fight.
"I mean, he's still not maybe 100 per cent, but he's Rafa. I never beat him before, so I knew I have play 100 per cent to beat Rafa," Nishikori said. "I knew I have to be aggressive, so I have to change some tactics to play against Rafa. Yeah, everything was feeling well today. I felt like, you know, everything was going in."
The day was delayed twice by rain, and the schedule wasn't helped by Gulbis's impressive fight against a Djokovic who, for much of the match, seemed resigned, almost serene about the fact that he might well be going down to defeat. He didn't get dramatic, or intense; he was loose as a goose.
But Gulbis, who hadn't even entered the event and needed a wild card from the organizers to play the qualifying – he said he simply forgot, so used to being automatically eligible for top-level Masters 1000 events in his previous incarnation as a top-20 player – showed exactly why he reached that ranking. And Djokovic, inexplicably, played predominantly to Gulbis's far more dangerous backhand than to the inconsistent, technically-challenged forehand that has spawned nicknames like the "Condor" and the "Gulbatross".
But then, with two match points in hand at 6-4 in the second-set tiebreaker, Gulbis flinched. Not surprisingly; even at their very best, the underdogs tend to flinch when facing the massive possibility of beating a world No. 1. But still, once Djokovic had taken possession of that second-set tiebreaker, pretty much everyone knew it was all but over.
"I actually enjoyed very much competing. Enjoyed the match for some reason. Not many times do I experience that feeling. Obviously you're in your zone and focused. Tonight I was really enjoying. The crowd was into it. They supported me, so I want to thank them really for that support. It got me out of trouble," Djokovic said. "Ernests was a better player for two sets. Unfortunately missed two match points. I wasn't very happy with my game. But, again, in the end of the day, you have to muscle it out sometimes and I had to put in the effort."
Once that three-hour match was done at 9:30 p.m., the "day session" officially ended and the stadium had to be cleared and the big night-session crowd that had been waiting outside for hours had to be let in. What followed was a late-night marathon on two courts, as both Djokovic and Nadal, still alive in the doubles, honoured their commitments and played.
Here's the timeline of how the rest of the evening went down.
9:51 p.m.: Nadal enters an empty stadium, waves to the few people who have arrived at their seats.
10:03 p.m.: Nadal v Nishikori begins.
10:15 p.m.: Nishikori breaks for the first time
10:18 p.m.: Umpire Fergus Murphy, in English, unable to get the crowd to sit down on the first changeover, says, "Do me a favour and just stand still until the end of this game."
10:24 p.m.: Djokovic and doubles partner Janko Tipsarevic enter Court Banque Nationale
10:26 p.m.: Nishikori breaks Nadal again.
10:29 p.m.: Djokovic-Tipsarevic vs. Murray-Peers begins
10:38 p.m.: Nishikori easily wins the first set.
10:52 p.m.: Nadal double faults to give Nishikori the early second-set break.
10:57 p.m.: Djokovic and Tipsarevic win the first set 6-2.
11:01 p.m.: Nishikori breaks Nadal again, a flat-out, stone-cold return winner on a first serve.
11:06 p.m.: A fighting Nadal gets one break back.
11:13 p.m.: Nadal, with a weak 129 km/hour second serve to work with on a break point, awkwardly dumps a backhand into the bottom of the net.
11:19 p.m. At 3-5, 30-15, Nadal finally hits an inside out forehand that was, well, Nadalian. And then he hits another to hold, and force Nishikori to serve it out.
11:24 p.m.: Nishikori's first match point. He double-faults.
11:25 p.m.: Another second serve to feast on, but Nadal’s return lands four feet inside the service line. It's over.
11:31 p.m.: Murray and Tsonga take centre court.
11:38 p.m.: Down a break in the second set, Djokovic and Tipsarevic rally, and it's on to a tiebreak.
11:44 p.m.: Down 1-3, Murray-Peers wins the second set.
11:49 p.m.: Murray and Tsonga begin.
12:26 a.m.: Nadal-Verdasco vs. the Bryan brothers begins on Court Banque Nationale.
12:31 a.m.: Murray wins the first set over Tsonga.
12:54 a.m.: The Bryans take the first set over Nadal-Verdasco
1:29 a.m.: Murray wraps up his win over Tsonga.
1:43 a.m.: Nadal and Verdasco rally to force a match tiebreak.
1:56 a.m. The Bryans win; Nadal goes 0-for-2 on the night.