TORONTO — For more than two hours under Friday night lights, the World No. 1 had been grinding and fighting, and then finally he stared down match point in this Rogers Cup quarterfinal.
Rafael Nadal fired his backhand into the net — and then came the trumpets. Someone had sounded them a little early.
On the next point, Croatian Marin Cilic, who’d been dominant at the start of the night and near perfect for most of it, sent a groundstroke long, and Nadal had completed his comeback: 2-6, 6-4, 6-4, in just about two hours and 20 minutes.
Then it was time for trumpets.
Dressed in fiery red, Nadal threw up both arms as the crowd roared. He threw out a huge fist pump, he threw off his headband, he shook out his brown hair and he pumped his fists. After shaking hands, he tossed aside his racquet and continued celebrating, arms in the air.
“Was just because have been a very important match for me,” Nadal explained afterwards, of his on-court jubilation. “Being in semifinals is great news at the start of the hard-court season in a good way. And winning three good matches in the first Master 1000, yeah, so important for me.
“And especially the way that he played in that first set was unstoppable, no? So, I resisted. I play with the right tactic. I tried to find my solutions, but was so, so difficult. So that’s why it was an important celebration, no? It means a lot to me to be in the semifinals.”
The 32-year-old will take on World No. 38 Karen Khachanov on Saturday. It’s a good thing, too, because Nadal is clearly the fan favourite here, and the big draw left in a bracket that’ll see Wimbledon runner-up Kevin Anderson take on teenaged Grecian Stefanos Tsitsipas in the other semi.
Nobody’s drawn more fans than Nadal has to the Aviva Centre’s centre court, which was packed Friday night. When he’s up you’ll hear “Vamos, Rafa!” and when he’s down it’s a pleading, “C’mon, Rafa!” When a challenged Cilic ball was called out, the crowd literally screamed with glee. They cheered when the Croatian missed an overhead smash long, too, and when his attempted winners sailed wide in the late goings.
Ill-timed shows of verbal support for Nadal, yelled out too close to a serve, were met with a: “thank you” from an umpire who didn’t mean it. Sometimes, the umpire just said, “Please.”
Nadal didn’t seem to mind. “You have the chance to play in front of a great crowd,” he said. “Amazing support for me tonight. Can say thank you very much to all the people here in Toronto.
“And, yeah, the energy, the passion, I love to play this kind of matches. I’m very happy for everything. It’s been an important week for me, and things keep going.”
Friday night didn’t start Nadal’s way, however. It marked just the fifth time this season that he lost the opening set in a match, a season in which he’s now 36-3, with four titles.
Cilic, the World No. 7, dictated play in the first set, painting the corners, redirecting Nadal’s serves at unreachable angles for winners. He broke Nadal early to take a 2-1 lead, and the World No. 1 didn’t win another game on his serve until the end of the first set.
Between the first and second sets, Nadal left the court briefly — “because I needed to go to the toilet,” he explained, with a smirk.
That doesn’t explain the turning point, but it came early in set No. 2.
“If he had the break in that first game of the second set, the match will be so difficult, no?” Nadal said. “Because the dynamic was very bad for me and unbelievable good for him. So I know that beginning of the second set will be decisive.
“And then, in the 2-1, I had that break that he missed couple of balls and was the first time in the match that he make some mistakes, and I had the break.”
It was Nadal’s first break opportunity of the match, and he made good on it, taking a 3-1 lead. His second big break, turning point No. 2, came at the end of the match, on Cilic’s final service game. Nadal floated in a filthy drop shot to go up 0-30, and capitalized on a Cilic mistake on match point.
And so, Nadal is one win away from a shot at a fourth career Rogers Cup title.
“I’m in semifinals, man,” he said, with a smile. “That’s the most important thing.”