At the business end of the 2017 Shanghai Masters, the first semifinal sees world #1 Rafael Nadal meet this year’s Wimbledon finalist Marin Cilic. Nadal has had a dream year winning six titles including two Grand Slams and stormed back to the top of the world rankings. But Cilic, who won the US Open in 2014 and the Cincinnati Masters in 2016 is not in the last four just to make up the numbers. Both men have plenty to play for with a spot in the final up for grabs. But who will come out on top?
These two players have played five times so far in their careers. Nadal currently has a fairly commanding 4-1 advantage. Indeed, the only reverse Nadal has suffered against Cilic was in 2009 in their first encounter. Cilic destroyed the Spaniard in the Beijing semifinals, losing just four games in a dominant performance. Since then, however, Nadal has won four on the bounce losing just one set. That run includes dominant wins at the Australian Open and in the quarterfinals of the Rome Masters, both in 2011. The last time these two played was at the Mexican Open where Nadal demolished Cilic in the semis 6-1 6-2. The world #1 was terrific in the match, managing to make Cilic look ordinary in a crushing win.
Path to the semifinals
Nadal has been ruthless and relentless so far. Having received a bye in the first round, the world #1 outclassed young American Jared Donaldson 6-2 6-1 in the second round. He next faced old foe Fabio Fognini who in the past has troubled him. But the Spaniard won comprehensively 6-3 6-1 to book a quarterfinal match against Grigor Dimitrov. It was a classic encounter and as expected the Bulgarian tested the mettle of Nadal. In fact, it was the seventh time in 11 meetings that a decider was required to settle the contest. It was Nadal who played the crucial points better early on clinching the first set 6-4.
It looked like he would romp home in straight sets after taking a 4-2 lead in the second set tiebreaker. But, Dimitrov raised his game at the right moment to stay alive. That being said, Nadal was not helped by back to back forehand misses at the close of the set. In the final set, the Bulgarian started magnificently and was threatening the upset. However, Nadal raised his level to begin to force errors from Dimitrov. It proved decisive as Nadal won three games in a row from 2-2 to effectively seal the match. Eventually, the enthralling contest ended 6-4 6-7 6-3 with Nadal in the semis.
For Cilic, for whom the title would seal a spot at the ATP finals the tournament has gone superbly. He started with a 6-3 7-6 win over the talented Briton Kyle Edmund who could have been a tricky opponent. Then it was the turn of Steve Johnson of America who fought hard but succumbed 7-6 6-4. In the quarterfinals, he put on a fine display against Albert Ramos Vinolas to win 6-3 6-4 in straight sets. The Croatian made an indifferent start as a slew of errors kept Ramos Vinolas in the contest early on. However, Cilic was quick to bring his best game and set up a semifinal with world #1 Nadal. The Croatian may not have faced a seeded player in the tournament but he is also yet to drop a set.
How do they match up?
Nadal has played excellent tennis all year, reminding many of when he was at the peak of his powers. The Spaniard has been impressive with his all-around play and looked good at key moments of the match against Dimitrov. His forehand has fired all week in Shanghai, and he hit several of the jaw-dropping quality that only he can muster. His backhand too has been impressive, but it is his movement that has been particularly noteworthy. Repeatedly in their match, Dimitrov threw everything at Nadal, particularly in the third set. But Nadal stood up to the Bulgarian’s power and replied with some of his own.
He will doubtless have to face more of the same against Cilic. There are few players with more power than the big Croatian and he has shown that he can hit through anyone when he is at his best. His huge serve has been firing this week helping him to avoid losing a set so far. Moreover, the Shanghai surface suits his power game and Cilic is taking full advantage of this. Cilic will have to play aggressively from the off, as he bids to make his fourth final of the year. But, if he does so, his power off both the forehand and backhand wing might just be enough to puncture the Spaniard’s legendary defence.
There is a strong case to back Cilic thanks to his form this week. However, the world #1 is playing some of his best tennis and looks to have recovered his champion’s aura. Having passed the Dimitrov test with flying colours, Nadal will look to play his way into the finals. Back the world’s best to win in straight sets.
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