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By Richard Pagliaro | Friday, March 27, 2015

Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal showed no signs of the ankle injury he suffered in practice earlier this week, blowing by Nicolas Almagro, 6-4, 6-2, to reach the Miami Open third round.

Photo caption: @BNPParibasOpen

Serving for the opening set, Rafael Nadal suddenly stopped to stare down the unsettling move from an unstable adversary.

A wind gust rattled Rafa's water bottle from its position next to its ever-present companion, the nutrition drink bottle. Nadal noticed the disturbance and stopped his serve until the bottle was repositioned.

More: Miami Open Photo Gallery

In a match played amid sometime swirling 25 mph gusts, Nadal's fast reactions and attention to detail helped him tame both the tricky wind and Nicolas Almagro, 6-4, 6-2 to advance to the Miami Open third round.

Moving quickly and extending points with his trademark defensive tenacity, Nadal showed no signs of the ankle injury he suffered during practice against Grigor Dimitrov at the start of the week.

"The real thing is the wind was really high. [It was] very difficult to find a positive feeling on court," Nadal said in his post-match press conference. "But in general I think I played a solid match. I played well. I had a good movement. I think I moved myself quick for moments, and when I had to put the balls in play and play with no mistake, that was the idea today, with that very tough conditions, I did. For some moments, I went for the points. I worked well with my forehand. I'm happy the way that I played."

The ankle injury he sustained did not inhibit his movement, Nadal said afterward.

"I had just a little bit, how do you say, small [tear] in the beginning, so it was going to be tough," he said. "The day after I had pain, but after two days I improved 50 percent and stays the  same. It's not limiting my movements."

Both men struggled to control shots in the swirl at times before Nadal settled in and broke for 3-2. He extended the advantage to 5-3 with a convincing hold.

Then turbulence struck.

Serving for the set at 5-4, Nadal noticed when the wind knocked his water bottle over and waited for the ball kid to straighten it. Whipping a forehand wide, he faced double break point and set about breaking down the Almagro backhand.

Drawing a backhand error to save the first break point, Nadal withstood a time violation warning with a twisting serve to save the second. Court positioning was the key to the match: When Nadal needed to step inside the baseline and drive the ball, he was more decisive and accurate than Almagro. Nadal fought off a third break point with a backhand down the line.

A tremendous defensive get saw Nadal flick a spinning lob to extend the point before racing to his left and curling a running forehand winner down the line to seize the set. He skidded to a stop near the doubles alley hurling a huge uppercut in the air and erupting in a loud "Vamos!" to take the opening set.

The quandary Almagro faces in this match up is he can't run with Rafa and knows he'll gradually loses ground as crosscourt rallies grow wider. So when Almagro, who prefers some space behind the baseline to generate his sweeping swings, feels compelled to step in a little closer, hit a little flatter, squeeze shots a little closer to the lines, the errors arise. He flattened a forehand into net as Nadal broke for 2-1 in the second set.

The world No. 3 can make life miserable for opponents patrolling the baseline, but he made the crowd buzz with brilliant net play in a rapid-fire exchange in the fifth game of the second set.

Successive net cords started the point, then a bouncing Nadal made magic as Almagro tried to blast right through the French Open champion. Nadal nudged back a forehand volley off his hip, blocked a backhand volley in self preservation on the second volley, then adjusted to a shot that ricocheted off the tape and snapped of a snazzy high backhand volley winner.

That triple play of eye-popping stab volleys brought the crowd to its feet in full roar and Almagro to his knees. Nadal broke again for 4-1 and never looked back.

Last week, Nadal failed to convert three match points against titanic serving Milos Raonic, falling in the Indian Wells quarterfinals. The left-hander was pleased with his play on pressure points today: He converted three of four break points.

"I think I did the things well when I had to do," Nadal said. "I played with no mistakes in the important points. Last  week I  had  a  lot  of opportunities in that match in quarterfinals.  It's true that I didn't have a lot of mistakes; he played well. But I lost the opportunities to convert, and it's  important to change the dynamic of these things quick. Doing it in this match is important for me."

When Almagro floated a lob that the wind tossed aside wide then sailed an overhead to fall behind 1-5, he dropped his yellow racquet to the purple court, and barked at his support box with such bluster, the veins in his neck bulged visibly.

Almagro floated a lob into the wind wide then sailed an overhead to fall behind 1-5. He dropped his yellow racquet to the purple court, and barked at his support box with such bluster, the veins in his neck bulged visibly. You had to feel some sympathy for the world No. 74, who wore the exasperated look of a man beaten down by the elements and an unfazed opponent.

Even in calm conditions, Nadal can be a beast of an opponent, but the combination of his twisting topspin and the whipping wind left Almagro looking tormented as Nadal cruised to his 11th victory in 12 meetings with his compatriot.


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