Few players respond to losses better than Rafael Nadal.
When Tomas Berdych beat him at the 2006 Madrid Masters and put his index finger to his lips to silence to Spanish crowd, Nadal and the thousands watching were infuriated. Nadal then beat Berdych the next 17 times they played.
After losing to Roger Federer in the 2006 Wimbledon final, Nadal played the Swiss much tougher in their 2007 final rematch and then upended Federer in the 2008 decider, growing more adept on the lawns each year to counter Federer’s more natural grasscourt game.
After being blown off the same court by Nick Kyrgios in the 2014 Wimbledon fourth round, Nadal was prepared for the Aussie’s explosive power the next time they met, in Rome, and turned the tables.
If you can see where this pattern is going, then you know what happened when Nadal faced Milos Raonic in the Australian Open quarterfinals after falling to the towering Canadian two weeks earlier at the Brisbane International.
Nadal recorded a 6-4 7-6(7) 6-4 victory over the No.3 seed to advance to the last four, where he will tackle Grigor Dimitrov, a straight-sets winner over David Goffin earlier on Wednesday.
“(Tonight) I received inside the court. In Brisbane I was receiving like six, seven metres behind the baseline,” Nadal said.
“I watched the match before, and I decided to go in, no? Talking with Toni, with Carlos, we know that we needed to change that. I felt that I was putting some pressure on him … Even for moments he played so good from the baseline, I was there trying to stop his aggressive shots and don't losing court, don't losing metres behind the baseline. That's important change for me.
“I feel very happy for my attitude and for the tennis, too. I hit some great passing shots. That's good news for me. When I make that happen, it's because I'm playing well.”
From the very early stages of the match, you could tell Nadal was on. Raonic was not. The highest seed remaining in the draw looked slow to react, lacking in feel and unsure at the net. When he missed, it was by a lot, and he frequently came into net behind questionable shots only to be punished by the Spaniard. That never seemed to change as the match wore on – Raonic came into the net 52 times in all, and won just 27 points.
Nadal, by contrast, was sharp. He kept his errors to a minimum and was aggressive from the back of the court, ensuring Raonic was kept off-balance and unable to dictate. In the seventh game, two passing shot winners helped him break for a 4-3 lead, which he consolidated in the next game. “Serve, return, backhand pass, forehand down the line,” British journalist Tumaini Carayol tweeted. “Rafa checking box after box so far.”
With the first set in hand, Nadal was forced to battle harder as Raonic found a more potent gear. The Canadian threatened to break in a lengthy second game that extended five deuces, and after departing the court for a medical timeout after the fifth game, returned to Rod Laver Arena and continued to hold serve unaffected.
Nadal’s level dropped, and when errors streamed from his racquet in the 10th game, Raonic earned three set points. He couldn’t convert, but when a tiebreak ensued, he held three more thanks to some more assured net play and a delightful lob winner.
Again, he failed to convert. From 7-6 up, Raonic committed three errors to hand Nadal a two-sets-to-love lead.
In the third set, you could see Nadal had even learned from his previous win two nights ago. In the fourth round, also leading two sets to love, Nadal became passive and let Gael Monfils attack his increasingly short forehand and work his way back into the match.
Not tonight. The Spaniard continued to hit out, and as games went on serve, he belted an inside-out forehand winner on his way to a 4-3 lead. Three games later, with Raonic serving to stay in the match, this aggressive approach worked again when a backhand winner seared past the Canadian at net to make scores 0-15.
Raonic erred on the next three points to hand Nadal a semifinal spot.
There awaits Dimitrov, the Bulgarian who beat Nadal in their last meeting at the China Open in Beijing three months ago.
You can be sure Nadal will have learned from that lesson.