Rafael Nadal is a beast. Yes, he hits one of the all-time great forehands, but his competitive instinct and ability to wear opponents down are just as impressive.
And in Monday's fourth-round match with 16th seed Kei Nishikori, it was Nadal's superior defense that helped him into his seventh Australian Open quarterfinal.
Even though Nadal won in straight sets, 7-6(3) 7-5 7-6(3), this was one of the best matches we've seen in Melbourne to date, and certainly one of the tightest straight-set wins you'll ever see, lasting three hours and 17 minutes.
Before today's match, Nishikori had taken just one set off Nadal in five meetings and despite playing some scintillating tennis at times, the Japanese star still went down in straight sets.
But he went down swinging.
Nadal paid tribute to Nishikori after the match, saying his attacking mindset caught him off guard.
"I think he's a fantastic player, he's able to hit the ball very early, that's very difficult and he's dong it very easy," said Nadal.
"The ball was coming back very quick and [it] was very difficult for me to take the position inside the court.”
Nishikori stepped up to the baseline and used his forehand and especially his backhand to dictate play, forcing Nadal ever-further behind the baseline and putting the Spaniard on the back foot.
But Nadal was more than up to the challenge. He scampered back and forth so much the painted ‘Melbourne’ sign on the Rod Laver Arena court was in danger of being worn out.
Despite being broken in the first game of the match, it was Nishikori who set the tone early. The talented ball striker elicited a lingering stare from the perplexed world No.1 after the 24-year-old dared dig out a lunging volley winner from a fizzing Nadal forehand that against most other players would have been a winner.
After Nadal won the first two games of the match, Nishikori went on a tear, winning the next three in a row. He turned defensive positions into attacking salvos, as he worked his way back into the contest.
The first set ended in a tiebreak, during which Nadal received a coaching violation. Despite this, the Spaniard shrugged it off and closed out the tiebreak 7-3.
The second set proved to be just as frenetic as the first. But this time it was Nishikori who struck first, breaking Nadal in the fifth game after the world No.1 missed the easiest of put-aways into a wide open court.
Nishikori was unable to maintain the advantage for long as Nadal broke back in the eighth game.
Not even a break in play to retrieve a new pair of shoes in the locker room after breaking a lace could snap Nadal's concentration.
A stunning forehand down the line secured what proved to be the decisive break for the top seed as he claimed the second set 7-5.
With the clock ticking past two hours, both players were feeling it, but neither was willing to give an inch. An early break for Nadal was answered promptly by Nishikori, who simply refused to yield.
A time violation for Nadal at a pivotal point – deuce in the ninth game – got under the Spaniard's skin. He hurled the ball he was bouncing away in disgust and glared at the umpire. With Nadal forced to serve a second serve, Nishikori took advantage of the situation to secure a break point that he then converted to take a 5-4 lead.
"I normally have a good self-control on court. It's true that the moment was a very critical one,” said Nadal when asked about the decision.
"I know the rules are there, but sometimes timings are a little bit tough … referee make the decision so just respect her [even though] I wasn't happy with the decision."
If Nishikori had to pin his downfall on one part of his game, it would have to be his forehand. On Monday, the stroke was his best friend one minute and worst enemy the next. Both players finished the match with 36 winners, but Nishikori’s 51 unforced errors – many off his forehand wing – to Nadal’s 28 proved to be the difference.
Serving for the third set at 5-4, it let him down spectacularly. Three forehand errors practically handed the break back to the Spaniard.
Just like the first set, the third would be decided by a tiebreak, which Nadal won by an identical margin – seven points to three.
The win sets up a quarterfinal clash between Nadal and Grigor Dimitrov, the 22nd-seeded Bulgarian who ended Roberto Bautista Agut's run earlier today. Nadal said he's looking forward to the match with a player who has long been touted as a future champion.
"He's amazing; he has everything to be [the] next big star, he already is," said Nadal.
"For me is a great result to be in quarterfinals after missing last year."