It was the standout clash of the third round in Toronto, unsurprisingly considering its two combatants brought 20 Major titles to the table, and it did not disappoint. Nadal, the reigning French and US Open champion and world #1 was the heavy favourite coming into the match, having lost just two matches since March. Wawrinka, with just eight wins all year as he works his way back from a knee injury that required two surgeries, was understandably very much the underdog.
But the Swiss had showed impressive grit in battling his way into the third round, overcoming both Nick Kyrgios and Marton Fucsovics from a set down. Nadal, meanwhile, had received a first-round bye but had disposed of Benoit Paire comfortably enough in the second round, although the second set of their contest did feature seven consecutive breaks. Regardless, Nadal had no shortage of reasons to feel good about his game.
Nadal strikes late
He started the more confidently of the two, with a sharp hold to love in the first game of the match. Wawrinka, in contrast, immediately came under pressure, but he fought off two break points to draw level. Thereafter he settled into the match, trading blows with Nadal from the back of the court, without either man putting undue pressure on the other man’s serve. Until, at 4-4, Wawrinka earned three break points thanks to some splendid hitting.
Nadal fought them off and held serve, but he wasn’t able to put Wawrinka under the sort of pressure he would have wanted to as the Swiss drew held quickly. Nadal returned the favour to take a 6-5 lead, only for rain to arrive to disrupt play. When they returned 46 minutes later, Nadal was firing, Wawrinka spluttering. Nadal took a 0-30 lead, and though Wawrinka fought his way back to game point, he ultimately couldn’t escape, netting a forehand to surrender the set.
Tennis of the highest order
When Nadal held and broke to begin the second set, Wawrinka was in serious danger of fading from the contest. He looked to have thrown his best at Nadal in the first set and come up short. And he had only won back-to-back matches once this year before this week. Having battled valiantly, there would have been no shame in simply battening down the hatches in the face of a rampant Nadal and keeping the scoreline as respectable as he could.
But Wawrinka is made of sterner stuff than that. Not for nothing did he tear down the established order, winning three Grand Slams along the way and climbing to a career-high ranking of world #3. Rather than surrendering, Wawrinka unleashed an almighty storm of shot-making, the like of which only he is capable. Backhand after backhand was rifled past Nadal, serves were hammered beyond his reach and forehands slapped away.
The Spaniard’s advantage disappeared as swiftly as it had arrived as Wawrinka won four games on the bounce to turn the set on its head. The match looked to be heading to a decider, but Nadal clung on to his serve, shadowing Wawrinka until his chance presented itself. When it did so he struck mercilessly with a superb forehand pass to break back. Wawrinka fought on, and forced a tiebreak. But by then his bolt really was shot, and Nadal won the breaker 7-4 to claim a late-night thriller.
Nadal on the charge
The only man to have claimed more titles in Canada than Nadal is his great rival Novak Djokovic, who has four crowns to Nadal’s three. But the Serb is out of the running this year after stumbling to a three-set loss at the hands of Stefanos Tsitsipas. Nadal will now feel that this is the year to draw level. Defending champion Alexander Zverev still lurks in the other half of the draw and Marin Cilic will present a real challenge in the quarterfinals. But at the moment, it looks as though Nadal will take some stopping.
Stan back in the big-time?
Wawrinka may have walked away empty-handed, but under the lights of Centre Court at the Aviva Centre he did much to rebuild his battered reputation. He showed admirable fight against Kyrgios and Fucsovics and played something close to his best against Nadal. That he came up short, despite striking 32 winners to the Spaniard’s 25, is more a testament to Nadal’s performance than an indictment of his own. If he can continue to find that sort of performance, the wins will come.