In what is turning into seniors’ week at the Australian Open, Rafael Nadal struck another blow against youth by defeating Milos Raonic 6-4, 7-6 (7-5), 6-4 in a performance that nudged the Rod Laver Arena clock forward two hours and 44 minutes, and the calendar back several years.
In doing so, the Spaniard advances to a semi-final date with Grigor Dimitrov and keeps alive the possibility of his first grand slam final clash with Roger Federer since 2011. Rarely tonight did he look like a man playing his first quarter-final in 18 months.
Before this match Nadal issued an Ivan Drago-esque appraisal of what he was in for. “If I am not playing aggressive, then I am dead, because he plays aggressive,” the world No9 said.
To that end, and following his defeat at the hands of the Canadian three weeks ago in Brisbane, he also knew that the 6ft 5ins Raonic’s service game was the main weapon requiring neutralisation. The Spaniard could not have delivered much better on his promise in the first set, winning 83% of points on his first serve and 75% on his second.
Raonic, conversely, found his fabled trump card letting him down . Nadal broke him in the seventh game of the first set, but cracks had appeared as early as the Canadian’s shaky opening service game of the match, which he held with an almighty struggle before offering up a break point in his next as well.
At that point Nadal was turning rallies into bare-knuckle brawls, subtly shifting gears from defence to attack, and going on mini-sprees with his signature forehand winners. After taking it 6-4 in 43 minutes he pumped his fist, stared down his opponent and then pedantically called for his towel before he was prepared to exit the court for the changeover.
Such obsessive control of his work environment extended to an almost complete eradication of unforced errors. Nadal had only two for the set, and it mattered not that Raonic was leading 16-12 for winners and 6-0 in aces.
More trouble was brewing for the Canuck. Five games into the second set, on level terms, he disappeared beneath the stadium for a medical time-out, leaving Nadal to stay warm by jumping around at the side of the court playing an imaginary match, which he was also presumably dominating.
Whatever Raonic had tweaked was given a work-out upon resumption as Nadal sent him galloping around the court, but soon the Canadian recovered and set up two break points for the set. The response to that minor crisis was a classic Nadal rearguard: his first ace of the night, a minor rollocking of a ball kid, one curling forehand winner to save yet another set point, then a determined hold. If Raonic’s veins were bulging, his opponent’s nerves were imperceptible.
The ensuing tiebreak produced 13 minutes of nerve-shredding tennis, though not for Nadal. Again he withstood three set points to take it 9-7 – at his first opportunity. Raonic had played some sublime tennis too, lobbing the veteran with perfection, but he lacked the cutting edge when it mattered.
The third set was emblematic of that: Raonic did plenty right but just enough wrong. Serving at 4-5, he crumbled to cough up three match points and couldn’t save one. Nadal sank to his knees in ecstasy, then rose to leap into the air, perhaps just to show that he still can.
Raonic’s time might come relatively soon – though possibly not at the forthcoming Canada v Great Britain Davis Cup tie, as after this match he said his participation “was very much up in the air” as he has an abductor muscle injury. There are those who wonder if he is a little too robotic and perfect, and possibly rejoice at this result, would have been gladdened by the sight of his pre-match warm-up routine before this match.
Moments before following Nadal down the tunnel and out onto the arena, in the bowels of the stadium, the Canadian got his size 14 feet moving by passing a miniature football back and forth with his trainer. He was, to put it diplomatically, no Pelé.
He is also no longer a contender for the Australian Open, while Nadal might yet win his 15th grand slam title, and one that would genuinely astound. On this night an era refused to pass, but time did not stand still. Both players wore thick headbands throughout the night – Raonic to tame a thick and youthful mane, Nadal to cleverly disguise what little remains of his own. That’s veteran experience for you.