On Tuesday, the night session at the Australian Open was headlined by an intriguing match-up between world number one as well as fan favorite Rafael Nadal and 2014 US Open champion Marin Cilic. The pair had met five times before, the only victory for Cilic dating back to the fall of 2009 in Beijing. The last encounter happened rather recently when Nadal dismissed Cilic in Shanghai last October in straight yet tight sets 7-5, 7-6 (3).
Both players started the match in very aggressive manner, determined not to surrender any ground once the point had begun. For most of the time, rallies stayed comparably short. They thrived on serve early on until Nadal created a total of five breakpoint opportunities when Cilic served at 2-3, none of which he was able to convert due to some untimely misses on the backhand return. By the time Cilic eventually claimed the game, the match time already exceeded half an hour.
Nadal’s attitude had seemingly taken a minor hit as he committed some quite uncommon mistakes to to gift the Croat a breakpoint opportunity. Like Nadal however, Cilic failed to convert his chance and the Spaniard managed to hang on. The game after that, Cilic quickly found himself 0-40 down and eventually conceded the game to give Nadal a 5-3 lead. The world number one closed out the set by 6-3 with a crushing forehand winner down the line after having seen two set points come and go at the firepower of his adversary.
By the early stages of the second set, Nadal had consolidated his game from the baseline, reducing the number of avoidable errors remarkably. Therefore, Cilic faced ever more difficulties when attempting to hold serve. Whilst serving at 2-2 and being down 15-40, the Croat was given a time violation by the umpire and served up a double fault thereafter to gift Nadal an early break. However, Cilic managed to break back immediately, leveling the set with a massive forehand return winner cross court.
Retaking a 4-3 lead and defying the obstacles thrown in his way by the umpire restored some self-belief in the 29 year old. Fittingly, he broke the Nadal serve once more in the subsequent game to grab a commanding 5-3 lead. A few heavy serves was all it took to seal the second set 6-3, much to the delight of the underdog who raised his fist to celebrate drawing level with the arguably best player on the planet.
Down a set and a break, @cilic_marin responds to take the second set 6-3!
Cilic seemed to take control of the match slowly but steadily and was the first to obtain breakpoint opportunities in third set at 1-1 with Nadal serving, who had to dig deep in order to hold serve which he eventually did. He was asked to save even more breakpoints at 3-3 all when Cilic upped his level of play considerably and started hitting ferociously off both wings. However, Nadal oftentimes relied on the lefty serve out wide which Cilic clearly had problems to answer with a meaningful return. This proved to be an effective tool to divert Cilic’s attacks on the Nadal serve and saw him take a 4-3 lead.
Cilic’s serving performance did not leave much to be wished for either as he recorded six aces in the third set alone. All of a sudden, he started feeling the tension and was forced to save a set point at 4-5. Nevertheless, he leveled the score to 5-5. As both players held their next service games with ease, a tiebreak had to decide matters. During the course of the breaker that ensued Cilic kept hitting winners that left the Rod Laver Arena crowd in awe but Nadal was the more consistent of the two. He earned himself a set point at 6-5 and closed out the set 7-6 (5) with a smash down the middle after rushing the net.
In contrast to what one would expect, Cilic’s confidence did not suffer from the disappointment of losing the tiebreak. Instead, the Croat began to play with even more purpose from the baseline. He had already put the Nadal serve under immense pressure by hitting two stunning return winners when Nadal served at 0-1 but did not manage to take the break. In Nadal’s next service game at 1-2 Cilic converted his sole breakpoint of the game by unloading on a huge forehand winner inside in. Thereafter, he quickly raced ahead and established a 4-1 lead.
During the changeover that followed Nadal took a medical timeout due to pain in his right thigh. Soon it became evident that his agility on the court was hampered. Nevertheless, he fended off three straight breakpoints from 0-40 down to set the score to 2-4. His opponent showed no mercy whatsoever and did his best exploit the troubles of Nadal and broke him yet again to win the fourth set 6-2.
As the fifth set kicked off it became clear from the get-go Cilic was going from strength to strength. Nadal wasn’t going all out on his movement any more, uncharacteristically going for the early winner. All signs looked as if Cilic was one break away from Nadal retiring. And so it happened. After squandering many opportunities to break early, Marin finally converted, and Nadal stepped towards Cilic to concede the match. Sadly, the contest found an unfortunate close as a Nadal in visible agony had to retire due to pain in his right thigh.
A bittersweet victory for Cilic, surely. Right after the handshake, Nadal’s furious outing of throwing his headband to the ground said it all. Nadal was gutted. Cilic had completed a 3-6 6-3 7-6(7-5) 6-2 2-0 victory, only his second over Nadal.
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