(1) Rafael Nadal vs (6) Marin Cilic
Rafa Tops Saucy Schwartzman
For the first time in Melbourne, the top seed was pushed some as Rafael Nadal battled (24) Diego Schwartzman in the fourth round. Schwartzman showcased the same flair and desire we saw from him during last year’s U.S. Open run. His big hitting ground strokes caused a few anxious moments for Rafa before he steadied for the 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-3 win. Schwartzman had 58 winners, but 68 unforced errors. Nadal had a solid 46 winners, but was shaky at times early with 52 unforced errors. The top seed had 52 unforced errors TOTAL in the previous three rounds combined.
His serve was leaky as well with Nadal forced to save 18 break chances. He had not faced more than six since his opening round win over Victor Estrella Burgos. His win rates were his lowest of the tournament at 63 and 61 percent respectively for his first and second serves. What Rafa did do well was forcing Schwartzman to continue running for the entire match on defense and weathering the Argentine’s big hitting winners to craft sevem breaks of serve on 18 chances. Nadal called the match a confidence builder as his first “big” match of 2018 and proving to himself that he could come through four grueling hours on court.
Cilic Notched First Quarterfinal Since 2010
The Australian Open hasn’t been Marin Cilic’s best tournament by a long shot. Since making the semifinals in 2010, the Croat had only been as far as the fourth round once until this year. He changed that by toughing out a game (10) Pablo Carreno Busta 6-7 (2), 6-3, 7-6 (0(, 7-8 (3). It was a bit cagey for Cilic who lost break leads in two of the four sets despite pressuring PCB into six breaks of serve on 14 chances. Cilic himself was broken four times, one more than he had experienced through three rounds. His first serve was popping with an 81 percent win rate and he was adequate, but not great with his second at 50 percent.
Not coincidentally, his lowest first serve rates of 77 against Vasek Pospisil and 81 against Carreno Busta have been the two matches where he dropped a set. The ground game was huge with 73 winners and 45 unforced errors. Cilic has topped 50 winners three out of four matches and better than 60 in two matches. I think the things Cilic did well against PCB are the same things he needs to be eager to do against Nadal. He didn’t cling to the baseline, choosing good spots to come in and attack. That’s a big plus I think with his serve to be able to try some of those tactics with Nadal.
Nadal has only dropped one set out of of the last 12 played against Cilic, which has him ahead in the head-to-head 5-1. Cilic’s lone win came in their first meeting in Beijing back in 2009. Rafa has won four of those last five meetings on hard courts with one indoors in Basel. Last year, they met twice with Rafa prevailing 6-1, 6-2 in Acapulco and 7-5, 7-6 (3) in Shanghai. In both cases, Rafa really did a number on Cilic’s serve as he won 42 percent of the points in Shanghai and a whopping 51 percent off Cilic’s serve in Acapulco. It’s not surprise then that he broke the Croat seven times on 22 chances. Cilic broke Nadal just twice on 12 chances.
There is the obvious starting point in this match-up; the Cilic serve vs the Nadal return. No one sets up deeper than Rafa on return. It really doesn’t matter much who he plays these days, his comfort level is playing super deep behind the baseline on return. This simply affords Rafa the best chance to read the serve and react. As that match wore on in Shanghai, Nadal kept creeping in and becoming more aggressive as he got a better read on Cilic’s serve. Watch where he sets up shop and you’ll have a good idea of how well he thinks he’s seeing the sixth seed’s serve.
It’s imperative that Cilic is landing his first serve and not allowing Rafa too many second serve chances. On the other side, expect Nadal to again target the Cilic backhand frequently on serve. Staying away from Cilic’s power forehand makes sense whenever possible. Rafa is looking to craft court position with his serve, so he’ll try to extend the Croat in one direction of the other to get him on the move. That allows Nadal to look to the next shot and the one after that. I literally don’t think he is looking to put a player away within one or two exchanges. Nadal wants to make his opponents run, especially a power guy like Cilic. You take the legs, you hinder the serve. Tennis 101 for great returners and defenders.
That obviously means it is on Cilic to try to be aggressive and shot in his points. He will need to take chances or get run into the ground. Schwartzman did this well, but still succumbed to getting into too many lengthy rallies with Nadal. If the shots are going into double digits in the exchanges, you’ll expect Nadal to win most of those rallies. That is why I think Cilic has to be prepared to come to next off his serve more than just a few times. Even if Nadal hits passing shot winners, put some pressure on the top seed to do just that. If you sit back and let the rally start, you know what is coming and you know how it usually turns against you.
Cilic is a really good mover for his size, but the thing Nadal has done well against him in the past is forcing him to move east to west from shot to shot. If you dissect what Nadal does best, it is just that. He doesn’t just engage you in long rallies where you can go toe-to-toe with him from the baseline forehand to forehand or backhand to forehand, he makes you move almost every single shot. He has a purpose and intent to each ground stroke and the more you recognize that, the more you appreciate that he does. Look for Nadal to target the backhand when Cilic is on the move. The Croat’s two hander is potent, but better when he can set up stationary and wallop it. On the run, it’s far less effective.
There’s really not a good would to negate Nadal’s game plan of running you ragged, other than to go for winners when you think you have an opening. Cilic has to look for those openings and not be afraid to try it even when there are not great openings. You simply do not want to engage in that type of war with Rafa over five sets. The other thing you must do is pressure Nadal’s serve. You could see when Schwartzman was having his best runs, that he was frustrating Nadal with the big hitting forehands or backhands that landed in for winners … and he was forcing Nadal to see break points. If you can do both, you can stick with Nadal.
But can you do that consistently for three sets to win? That is the question and the proving ground for Cilic today. The history says he can’t. Nadal may look vulnerable early until he gets a read on Cilic’s serve, but if he gets a read on it and starts getting good returns. That’s what the tables turn and Cilic will be up against it. It’s a big fat duh that Cilic needs to keep himself in this match early, i.e. not falling down 0-2. I don’t think he’s built for that comeback against Nadal.
I can see this being more competitive like their recent Shanghai clash, but that could still mean Rafa scrapping out a straight sets win. For Cilic, a lot of it is mental. He talks a good game about believing in himself more since winning the U.S. Open, but he also always qualifies that he can beat anyone “if” he’s playing his best. The BEST in the world can win when they are not playing their best. Guys who think they require a perfect plan and execution against the best are far less likely to achieve success in my opinion.
Problem solving during a match against a variety of opponents especially the top tier guys, is the hallmark of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal when they are fully fit. I don’t think Cilic possesses that against the best in the business, of which Nadal is still one.
Pig’s Bottom Line: Nadal wins in straight sets