The World no.1 Rafael Nadal managed to defeat Uruguayan star Pablo Cuevas 6-3, 6-7(5), 6-3 and advance to the Paris Rolex Masters quarterfinals, where he is due to face Filip Krajinovic.

Just a day before this match, Rafael Nadal sealed the year-end no.1 with a 7-5, 6-3 victory over Hyeon Chung. The Spaniard benefitted from Roger Federer skipping the Paris Masters in order to focus on the World Tour Finals as he had to win just one match to finish the year as the best player in the world for the fourth time.  However, it’s not like Nadal had zero motivation to win coming into this match, as Paris Masters is one of the few big titles that the Spaniard has never won.

Rafael Nadal was also in scintillating form, having won his last 17 matches against players not named Roger Federer. That wasn’t the case when it came to Pablo Cuevas, as before this tournament, the clay-court specialist Uruguayan lost ten matches in a row, including four on his favorite surface. Despite that, some strong results from the first half of the year like Madrid Masters semifinals still keep him as the world no.36. His victories over in-form players like Karen Khachanov and Albert Ramos-Vinolas came as a big surprise, especially on a surface that is so far from Cuevas’s preference.

Out of four previous meetings between the two, three came on clay courts and Pablo Cuevas was able to make two of them competitive, even defeating Nadal in the semifinals of 2016 Rio Open. Their only hardcourt meeting also came last year, at the Cincinnati Masters where the Spaniard got the job done 6-3, 6-2.

Both came out of the blocks really fast and were able to dictate the rallies because of the serving advantage. Nadal targeted the opponent’s backhand a lot and Cuevas was not rising up to the challenge which led to the first break of the match as the Spaniard got himself a 3-1 lead. In the first point of the next game, the Uruguayan produced a miraculous passing shot.

Nadal was unable to break his opponent again in that set but he stayed focused to close it out without any trouble 6-3 in only 36 minutes. The beginning of the second set was basically a repeat of the first one. Cuevas seemed fine but then a weaker moment came and he pretty much gifted the Spaniard game on his own serve.

After that break, it was easy to think that this would be one-way-traffic for Nadal now. Nothing further from the truth as the Spaniard struggled to find the rhythm on his groundstrokes and instantly got rebroken.

Even with Nadal hitting shots like that, it was quite obvious that Cuevas has improved a lot. His backhand wing, a big liability in the first set, was now a very dangerous weapon that allowed him to hit some really sharp-angled shots. Out of nowhere, the Uruguayan became a worthy opponent for the world no.1, at one point even being two points away from taking the set.

With nothing to lose, Cuevas attacked again at 6-5 up. A beautiful backhand pass gave him a 30-15 lead and he was once again two points away from the set. However, Nadal was able to deliver the goods just when he needed them and force a tie-break.

A forehand miss from Cuevas gave the Spaniard a mini-break but it was soon back at even when the Uruguayan managed to find a beautiful answer to his opponent’s drop shot. Nadal had the chance to be in front again but missed a straightforward forehand volley. Another volley miss at 5-5 gave the world no.36 a set point. Cuevas played that one pretty passively but won the set when the Spaniard missed a backhand down the line.

During the break between the sets, Nadal was forced to see the physiotherapist with some kind of a problem with his right knee.

The Uruguayan seemed really pumped up for the decider but out of the blue, he got broken in the second game of the decider. Nadal converted the break with a beautiful backhand winner, quite similar to the one he missed on set point in the second set.

Forced to save two break points at 0-3 down, Cuevas showed some extraordinary will to fight and saved them to keep at least theoretical chances of winning this match. They weren’t that theoretical though, as he got his chance in Nadal’s next game. The Spaniard was not moving too good, probably because of the right knee injury. However, when he had to, he once again managed to win an amazing exchange at the net. At 40-40 Cuevas called for a trainer with some kind of a problem with his finger which he apparently sustained when he tried to use it to break his fall.

Finally, the Uruguayan converted his third break point in that game with a stunning backhand winner.  It was really a match full of plot twists as now Cuevas played a surprisingly bad game to give Nadal the lead of a break again. The game dropped from a high-quality match at the end of a second set to a “shanking contest” in the third one as both were now mishitting a lot of balls and not moving too well around the court. After over 2 hours and 20 minutes of play, the Spaniard was finally able to close the match 6-3, 6-7(5), 6-3.

 

Quite an inspired performance from Pablo Cuevas, especially after that ten-match losing streak he had from June to October. The world no.1 Rafael Nadal wasn’t really impressive today, but he managed to get the win anyway. His next opponent is going to be the Serbian sensation Filip Krajinovic, who qualified for this tournament and has so far defeated Yuichi Sugita, Sam Querrey and Nicolas Mahut. Krajinovic’s career has been hampered by injuries a lot in the last few years, but it seems like he finally left that all behind. The Serbian got some impressive results on the Challenger Tour this year but this tournament is his first major breakthrough at a big tournament. If Krajinovic plays as good as he did the whole week, he can surely damage Nadal, especially if that right knee will somehow hamper the Spaniard’s movement.