Rafael Nadal seemed more concerned by the low-flying plane that buzzed Crandon Park on Tuesday than by the challenge of Nicolas Mahut, which he subdued unfussily in straight sets.
The aircraft, which seemed to have lost its way over Key Biscayne, drew gasps from the capacity crowd in the Stadium Arena as it cruised by at low altitude. Nadal, who was busy taking a drink at the change of ends, craned his neck as it passed overhead, but then got back to business quickly, winning three of the next five points to close out his 6-4, 7-6 victory.
Nadal’s own tournament had seemed to be running into turbulence in his previous match against Philipp Kohlschreiber, his 1000th on the ATP tour, which began with a ‘bagel’ 6-0 set against him. From that moment, though, he rediscovered his form, and particularly his first serve.
Nadal is not exactly known as a disciple of Pete Sampras, or perhaps we should speak of Goran Ivanisevic, given his left-handedness, but over the past four sets he has landed 70 first serves and lost only four of those points. Rather like Roger Federer swinging hard at his topspin backhand, this represents an unusual direction for a player we all know so well. And it highlights how determined these old soldiers are to keep improving, even after more than a decade on the tour.
Wednesday’s quarter-final will pit Nadal against Jack Sock, the leading American player at No 17 and one of the few men on tour who can generate similar torque on his forehand side. On paper, at least, this looks like a more awkward encounter, for Sock has taken a set off Nadal in both their previous meetings. Whereas Mahut, with his single-handed backhand and fondness for rushing the net, played into all Nadal’s strengths. The Frenchman, ranked No 55, had to produce high-risk tennis just to stay in touch, and could be happy in the end that he kept the scoreline respectable.
In the first match on the stadium court, world No 3 Karolina Pliskova had lived up to her status as the bookmakers, favourite by defeating Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, the Croatian veteran who had ousted her from the Australian Open two months ago in straight sets: 6-3, 6-4.
That put Pliskova into the semi-finals, and the equivalent match today will bring Great Britain’s Johanna Konta up against against Simona Halep, the Romanian whom she will face again in the Fed Cup in three weeks time.
Konta has looked smooth and rhythmical in her two most recent matches – both straight-sets wins – which followed a scrappy opener in a howling gale. Against Lara Arruabarrena of Spain on Monday night, she was by far the more dominant player, striking 31 clean winners to her opponent’s 11.
And although Arruabarrena managed to remain competitive during a tight first set, Konta ran away with it thereafter as she completed a 7-5, 6-1 victory in fine style.
“Actually I felt that her forehand is deceptively heavier than you would think because she is not a massively built girl,” said Konta of her opponent, who had the build of a middle-distance athlete rather than a sprinter. “So I felt I needed to do a good job of staying strong physically and trying not to get pushed back.”
The Arruabarrena match should make good preparation for today’s showdown with Halep, who is another road-runner. Konta’s coach Wim Fissette should be well-placed to advise her, as he worked with Halep through the 2014 season. At the time he said that the Romanian’s greatest asset was her “footballer’s legs”.
“When she’s playing well she is flying over the court,” was Fissette’s full verdict on Halep. “It’s a natural thing, she was born with fast feet and her movement is very soft. It’s a big like watching Roger Federer: he is in a different category of course but he also doesn’t use much energy, his movement is soft and light.”