Milos Raonic puts up a great fight in Miami, but Rafael Nadal prevails to reach semifinals

Stephanie Myles

It was awfully close, in that way Rafael Nadal matches generally have of being close, while you await that moment when the world No. 1 shifts into a higher gear and suddenly grinds his opponent into dust.

For Canadian Milos Raonic, that moment on Thursday night in the quarterfinals of the Sony Open came with Nadal serving at 2-3 in the third set, after more than two hours of play.

Suddenly, Nadal's devastating inside-out lefty forehand, the shot no one really has had an answer for during the last 10 years because Nadal choses his moments to use it so judiciously, became untouchable.

It was that "uh-oh" moment. If the fans can sense it, the opponent probably can, as well.

After Nadal held serve easily for one of the rare times on the strength of that forehand, suddenly Raonic was serving at 3-3, in what's often called the crucial seventh game of any set, and he was running like a maniac.

His first serve wasn't going in, and he suffered – that's the only word – three brutal rallies at the hands of Nadal when at deuce, suddenly Raonic felt the understandable need to go for too much and shorten the points. A forehand error, a backhand error, and there was the break, as Nadal then finished off a 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 victory that was anything but routine.

Nadal didn't just break Raonic in that game. He decisively stole his legs from him.

The 23-year-old Canadian had played Nadal four times before and while some of the eight sets they had played were tight, he had never won one.

And there he was, taking the first set on a Nadal double fault that went right into the bottom of the net. Raonic served well in that first set, at a 62 per cent first-serve clip, losing just 2-of-23 points when that first delivery went in.

What he didn't do the rest of the way, was keep that serving level up. And Nadal's two service breaks in a disappointing second set came when Raonic himself double-faulted.

But in the third, he regrouped. Raonic's defence of his second serve – and he had to hit far too many of them – was the best it had been the entire match.

But then ... that moment came. Nadal, arguably the greatest competitor the sport has ever seen, knew it was time to step it up after playing generally below his level for much of the match.

He made some terrible errors on Raonic's second serve. He hit 10 just 10 winners in the first two sets; he surpassed that total in the seventh game of that third set. And Raonic was winning the majority of the longer rallies, which is generally considered Nadal territory.

Nadal was even unrecognizable at the service line. Despite chair umpire Cédric Mourier warning both players early on that they were edging towards going over the 25 seconds allowed between points, the truth was that Nadal rarely went over it. He rarely even toweled off between points.

In fact, Raonic was the one who, especially in the middle of that third set, regularly went over the allotted time. He needed it, to try to catch an extra few gulps of oxygen as he valiantly stood up to the baseline punishment his opponent was dishing out.

Despite the loss, the last few weeks have to be hugely encouraging for Raonic. He reached the quarterfinals in both of the big U.S. Masters 1000 series events played this month. And he did it despite being out nearly two months with an ankle tendon problem, and with little practice going into the first one in Indian Wells.

The matchup with Nadal is always going to be an uphill battle for him. Nadal's leftiness takes away one of Raonic's great serving weapons: the extreme kicker to the ad court, which normally ties his righthanded opponents in knots and allows him to come in and volley if he wants to. And Nadal's sheer physicality and willingness to grind it out are always going to run counter to Raonic's need to impose his serve and forehand and keep the points as short as he can.

At times – and perhaps this was one reason his serving level fell – he seemed a bit unsure exactly what where and how to serve. The serving machine had to improvise in the way it doesn't often have to, and the circuits got a little crossed at times. The next time they meet, he may well have figured that out.

In the end, Nadal and Raonic had the exact same success rate on first serve: 75 per cent. Nadal changed up the serving patterns he had used through the tournament specifically to deny Raonic the ability to stretch out his long arms and take a big swing at the ball. And at that, he was successful.

It was a counter-intuitive decision. You would think, given Raonic's backhand is far less effective than his forehand, and that Nadal would direct his serve there the majority of the time, just as he did to his other opponents. But it was, clearly, a good decision.

For a match between these two to be competitive, Raonic has to play at his very top level, and Nadal has to have moments where he's mortal. He did on this night, and that made it close. He just didn't have quite enough of them to give Raonic a huge upset win.

When it came down to the business end of the match, he became Nadal again. And that's why he's Nadal.

But on Monday, on the strength of the last few weeks, Raonic will be back in the top 10. And Thursday night, he certainly showed he belongs there.

Nadal clearly thinks so as well, according to this Tweet from respected New York Times writer Christopher Clarey.