If Pablo Andujar had looked at some statistics before coming into his semifinal match against Nadal, he would’ve not fancied his chances too much. Nadal had only ever lost one ATP tour semifinal match on clay and that was 11 years ago against Carlos Moya. Since then he was on a 48-match semifinal win streak on clay.
But the way Andujar played today, he sure looked like he would be rewriting the history books. Such was his level of play that you could be forgiven for thinking he was a top 10 player. To further worsen things for Nadal, he was clearly not at his best today, and his back issues seemed to have cropped up again. But he carried on, and ensured there wouldn’t be two upsets in the semifinals in Rio.
Nadal started serving in the first set, and Andujar stepped up immediately. He gained two break points in the first game, thanks to two errors from Nadal. Nadal saved one with a solid attack to Andujar’s backhand and the second with an ace. Andujar gained another break point and looked to have sealed it with Nadal going for a weak return to the net, but he dumped his volley to the net. Then came another opportunity when Nadal fired a forehand long and this time, Andujar made no mistake as he smashed the ball deep and broke Nadal. Andujar did well to consolidate the break too, attacking Nadal’s backhand and pushing him around.
Nadal won his first game of the match in the third game. He was still slightly erroneous, but he adjusted himself quickly and used the one-two play to counter Andujar’s returns.
The players continued to hold serve, with Nadal going for his shots, but he was misplacing some routine would-be winners wide and wasn’t able to apply the pressure he wanted to on Andujar.
At 4-2, 0-30, the pressure was really on Nadal. He was uncharacteristic in his shot-making and serving, and Andujar disposed a weak second serve to earn a break point. He wasted the opportunity by missing a forehand, but got another chance with a similar winner off Nadal’s second serve. This time he made no mistake, as he took another weak serve on the rise and smacked it out of Nadal’s reach to get his second break of the match and a chance to serve for the set.
Nadal didn’t exactly make Andujar work for winning the set, but it went to deuce anyway due to Andujar’s own errors. He didn’t make a mistake after that though, and closed the set when Nadal’s attempted drop shot fell short.
Nadal started the second set strong, as expected, and pushed Andujar all the way in the second game. He was unlucky when a superb passing shot fell just wide, and Andujar held on.
It was Andujar’s turn to push Nadal, and the latter’s lack of first serves hurt him. But the World No. 1 saved a break point and held on with a commanding forehand.
Nadal pumped himself up, and got a look in the next game with two break points. Andujar saved one, but couldn’t keep his next shot from sailing long as Nadal finally broke him to take a 3-1 lead.
It was apparent that Nadal wasn’t at his best, but his determination was as strong as ever, and it kept fuelling him. That, and his trademark forehand down the line, which was in working order again.
Nadal made still more mistakes, missing an easy overhead on Andujar’s serve. What’s more, he touched his back after that point. Another missed forehand gave Andujar the game.
Nadal got himself into a small hole at 4-2, 0-30, but made three huge serves, two of them aces, to get a foothold back in the game. Andujar still pushed him to deuce, and got to break point again, but Nadal raced to his drop shot and put it past him. He held on for a 5-2 lead.
Andujar then produced a brilliant service game and all the shots he hit remained out of reach for Nadal. But in the next game Nadal produced his best shot of the match after gaining two set points, a perfectly sliced drop shot on the run, to take the match into a decider.
After holding serve in the opening game of the third set, Andujar stepped up. Nadal countered effectively with some strong serving and brilliant returns, and overcame a scare to level the score.
Andujar overcame the disappointment of not converting a break point, and continued playing strongly. Nadal stepped up too, but it wasn’t good enough to prevent Andujar from taking a 2-1 lead.
Again, it was Andujar who was the aggressor. He took full advantage of Nadal’s second serves and got an opportunity to break again. Nadal was resilient, and showed his authority with the right serves and shots at the right moment, and held on for 2-2.
At 30-30 in the next game, Nadal had an excellent opportunity to get to break point, with the whole court to aim for, but he went for the sideline, and missed it, giving Andujar game point. He converted it with a superb drop volley, wrong-footing Nadal.
Nadal looked to be in control in the next game, but a second time violation made him lose his first serve and a double fault gave Andujar a look at 40-30. But Nadal served well and got himself out of trouble to level the scores at 3-3.
In apparent command of the game at 40-15, Andujar lost the plot. Nadal finally played like the champion he is, and made Andujar run from end to end. He gained a break point, and controlled the point right from the start and pulled the trigger after cornering Andujar to the right side, to give him what looked like a decisive break.
But Andujar still wasn’t out of it. He got a couple of opportunities to break right back, and used his wide angled forehand to hit a solid winner off Nadal’s serve and take the game. A quick hold followed for Andujar, which left Nadal serving to stay in the match.
Nadal held his nerve and played clinically to fight away a determined Andujar. He was down 15-30 but he used his fail safe ploy of attacking Andujar’s backhand and held on for 5-5.
Andujar had no trouble holding serve on his own. This time, Nadal didn’t give him a chance as he raced away and forced a tie break to decide the match.
What followed was one of the most incredible passages of play so far this year and one of the rare times when Nadal has been pushed really really hard to get a victory on clay. The tie-break was nerve-racking for both sets of fans and the general crowd, as it swung one way and the other.
Both players initially struggled to gain points on their serve and then struggled to get an advantage on the opponent’s serve. There were mini breaks exchanged back and forth, with each player producing one brilliant shot after the other. Nadal saved two match points, and squandered three of his own, before he reached his fourth match point at 11-10, and it was the first one on his serve.
He won the match as Andujar fired one into the net, and Nadal’s reaction said it all. He was below par throughout the match, was clearly having some sign of trouble with his back, but his indomitable spirit carried him through.
With this victory, Nadal has made it three finals out of three tournaments in 2014 and 17 out of 20 finals since he made his return in February last year. He now faces Alexander Dolgopolov for a shot at the Rio title.