Rafael Nadal put up a sweat-saturated 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 performance to end Gael Monfils’s run at the fourth round of the Australian Open. Through the first two sets it looked like old-school Nadal dominance. Both sixth seed Monfils and ninth seed Nadal are rangy scramblers who cover every inch of the baseline, tracking down every ball with long skidding strides or bullish force of will, respectively; it’s miserable work, trying to get a ball behind either of them.
Where they diverge, though, is their patience as they edge towards the end of a meaty rally. Nadal will continue to grind the point down to a mild conclusion, winning off an opponent’s error or a safe ball into open court; Monfils will ease up a few strokes earlier, and—for better or worse—try to end the sentence with an exclamation point. So often it feels like the Frenchman has done all the hard work on a rally only to net the mid-air forehand, or the leaping overhead, or the through-the-legs half-volley, as the case may be.
The (very obvious) thing about shot-makers, however, is that they’re wildly charming when they actually make their shots. In the third set, Monfils found his groove on serve and offense. The Spaniard, meanwhile, began to recede, his forehands troublingly losing depth, dipping near the service line. When Nadal’s ball turns tentative and short, no amount of his trademark topspin can compensate. Those balls seemed to kick up right into Monfils’s ideal strike zone, as he teed off for deep forehands.
Amid all the showmanship, all the high jumps and tweeners, it’s easy to forget that Monfils can hit the shit out of a routine ball. The sheer pace on these third-set forehands tasted like a bracing reminder. (He went for 57 winners today, to go with 64 errors; the more conservative Rafa had 21 and 27.) But his confidence cooled abruptly in the middle of a fourth set that seemed to be going his way: Up 4-3 and 30-30, Monfils gave up his service game, with Nadal winning eight straight points to reclaim a 5-4 lead.
Rafa’s weekend showing should instill hope in all his disciples from the last decade who are praying that he can still muster another Grand Slam. Saturday’s rousing win over Alexander Zverev showed that even at 30, his stamina and physicality remain hard for a 19-year-old to keep up with. Their tiebreak in the third-set showcased some of the best tennis of the whole tournament; it was the crux of his struggle with Zverev’s toothsome two-handed backhand, which saw Nadal rebound to win 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-2. And with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray both upset by unseeded players, gone are all the usual lines of defense keeping Nadal from the title in Melbourne. He’ll face third-seeded semi-servebot Milos Raonic next. The field looks softer than it should this late in a major, and the old men—he and Roger both—are surely hungry to capitalize on that.