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By Richard Pagliaro | Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal withstood 24 aces from Ivo Karlovic, edging the ATP ace leader, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4) at the Shanghai Rolex Masters.

Photo credit: Getty Images

The heavy thud of Ivo Karlovic's booming serve bouncing off the back wall was an audible reminder of the challenge Rafael Nadal faced today in Shanghai.

The ATP's all-time ace leader lowered the boom pounding 24 aces, but dropped his head double-faulting to donate the only mini-break of the final-set tie break.

Leaping on that lapse, Nadal fired one final twisting forehand pass to finish a 7-5, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4) thriller.

More: Djokovic Crushes Klizan for 13th Straight Win

The seventh-ranked Nadal will face another massive server, Milos Raonic, for a quarterfinal spot in the Shanghai Rolex Masters.

The ninth-seeded Raonic also prevailed in a third-set tie break. Raonic hit 19 aces in a 6-4, 6-7 (3), 7-6 (5) decision over Roberto Bautista Agut. Nadal has won five of six meetings with Raonic, but the Canadian was a 4-6, 7-6 (10), 7-5 victor in their most recent meeting at Indian Wells in March.

On court, Nadal thrives on repetition and ritual. In Karlovic, he faces an opponent who denies rhythm and deconstructs the rallies the nine-time Roland Garros champion craves.

In his first match since bowing to Novak Djokovic in the China Open final, Nadal hit the ball cleaner than he did in Beijing, hammering 18 passing shot winners, including three forehand strikes in the decisive tie break, and competed with positive energy thwarting a towering opponent.

The 6-foot-11 Croatian's jolting power on serve and his penchant for pounding the inside-out forehand can reduce a standard rally dialogue to a monologue with Karlovic calling the shots.

Angling a slice backhand for break points, Karlovic hit an inside-out forehand winner to open the match with a break.

An explosive Karlovic had cracked 11 aces when he stepped up to serve for the first set at 5-4.

Nadal changed the tone of the match with three rousing return winners in a row. That triple play of brilliance in the 10th game was vintage Nadal.

Anticipating the wide serve, he wristed a forehand return winner down the line followed with an astounding full-stretch forehand return down the line for double break point then blocked a backhand return to break with a scream.

Nadal reeled off 16 of the final 18 points to snatch away an opening set that seemed firmly in the big man's grasp a few minutes earlier.

A tight second set escalated as Karlovic crunched his 15th ace working through a 30-all test for 4-all. He pushed the No. 8 seed to the brink seizing triple break point. Karlovic was one point away from serving for the second set. Nadal lifted his level with a flurry of shotmaking to deny the challenge. Leaning low, he spun a backhand pass down the line, bouncing up and down on his toes with a clenched fist fighting off a third break point. Nadal held on for 5-4.

Skeptics who dismiss Karlovic as a monotonous serving machine should take a look at the touch and variety he showed at net winning five of the final six points in the second-set tie break.

Showing soft hands on a slick half-volley to prolong the point, Karlovic knifed a backhand stab volley for winner for a 5-3 tie break lead.

Nadal, who had ripped several of his passing shots through two sets, bunted a couple of net exchanges rather than blasting the ball at the big man's hip and paid the price for a couple of tentative shots in the tie break. A biting second serve set up an easy high forehand volley for set point. Karlovic dug out a tricky low backhand volley closing the set with a fist pump toward his box.

Angling off a sharp forehand volley, Karlovic closed a love hold for a 3-2 lead in the decisive set.

Nadal spun his fourth ace to force the final tie break, which featured some flashes of pressurized shot-making from both men.

Grunting for the first time, Karlovic charged only to see Nadal whip a wicked dipping forehand pass for 2-1. Thumping three straight aces, Karlovic leveled at 4-4. Winless in four prior meetings with the former No. 1, Karlovic could see the finish line. But he dropped his head on a second serve netting a double fault to gift the mini-break and a 5-4 lead.

Taking the net away, Nadal blocked a high forehand volley for match points.

Crunching a final forehand pass down the line, Nadal hurled a celebratory upper cut in the air after withstanding 52 winners from a dangerous opponent. Nadal committed just 14 errors compared to the 49 from Karlovic, who knew he had to force the issue against the left-hander's baseline consistency.

Nadal's sheer joy and satisfaction from fighting through a tight two hour, 43-minute test was evident as he signed the court-side television camera in yellow flourish jabbing three exclamation points on a rousing win.


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