KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. – You want a spectacle in the Florida sunshine? Forget the dolphins. We had something else out here at Crandon Park on Friday -- a blood-tingling duel between two great athletes going head to head at a level of combat few can understand.
Power, skill, strength, bravado and sheer guts were on view in this Sony Ericsson Open semifinal as Andy Roddick, playing as well as he has ever played, took the match away from Rafael Nadal to win 4-6, 6-3, 6-3.
Nadal, the Mallorcan warrior who is adopting a more aggressive approach to his hard court game, dominated the first set and seemed to be heading for the kind of straight set win he had enjoyed against the American in the semifinal at Indian Wells two years ago.
But this time Roddick had other ideas. Instead of staying back whenever a Nadal return dropped short as he had done earlier, Andy decided to step in and test that volley which had taken him to two Wimbledon finals. And it worked. Oh, how it worked. Suddenly, those occasional volleys were being augmented by huge forehands which carried more weight off the ground and Nadal was under pressure.
What is it like, charging in with Nadal on the other side of the net? "It's kind of like driving into head-on traffic," said Roddick.
The turn around had started towards the end of the second set. Nadal, 0-15 down on his serve at 3-4, was caught flat-footed by a Roddick drop shot that arrived out of the clear blue sky. He reached it but could do nothing with the smooth forehand line pass that put him down 0-30. More trouble followed when he netted a forehand and then a Roddick forehand cleaned it up to love. The match was never the same.
The American took charge and revealed the tactical brain that lurks underneath that powerful engine by varying the pace of his returns, under slicing on his backhand and following it in for the killer volley. By the time Nadal put a ball wide on the first set point in the following game, Roddick had won 12 straight points.
The atmosphere had been great from the get-go, but now it became ridiculous. Here in Miami, Spaniards and Latin Americans always enjoy great support. Add Nadal's star power into the mix and the decibel level automatically increases. But at least 50 percent of the crowd is non-Hispanic American, and guess who they were rooting for.
So both players sent sections of the crowd into ecstasy whenever they pulled off a winner and, on this court, I have never heard a louder noise than that which filled the air during a stupendous third game of the second set.
Nadal was serving and he was soon on the back foot as Roddick unleashed a couple of turbo-charged forehands that took him to 15-30. Then we had the point of the match -- raking drives from both players into the far corners of the court; Roddick, almost caught out, stretching to shovel the ball over on his backhand; Rafa seizing on the short ball to send his opponent lunging to his right; up goes the desperate lob over the advancing Spaniard's head. Nadal races back and goes for the between the legs reply and it goes wide. And the crowd goes wild. That takes it to 15-40. A Roddick error throws Nadal a lifeline. But that forehand detonates again and Nadal can only put it into the net.
The decisive breach in the Spanish defenses was made and, despite a slight sign of nerves towards the end, Roddick's massive serve which -- incredibly, has only been broken twice in the last six matches (that's 62 holds out of 64 service games) -- took him through to a fabulous victory.
Afterwards, Roddick was obviously not getting carried away with himself: "As (coach) Larry (Stefanki) always says, 'You're never playing as well as you think and never playing as badly as you think.' So every day you start over. Today was a good day."
He was more forthcoming on tactics: "The way I rationalized it -- I'm trying to get the upper hand in a rally. It's very tough against Rafa once we get neutral. I don't hit the ball like him. I hit the ball straight through and his comes up and down and he can switch directions a little easier than I can. So I thought, 'Is my second serve my best approach shot against him?' I thought so. Doesn't always work but I thought that was my best shot.
"Normally, you know, I win 55-60 percent of my second serve points because guys don't handle it as well as Rafa does. So he forced me into something that isn't the most comfortable thing for me. I did it well today."
Nadal agreed: "Later in the second set, Andy was serving well," he said. " No, I didn't have a lot of chances on the return. He play very aggressive game and started to play more aggressive after he broke me. It was a change and it was a surprise for me.
"He's a very good competitor and if you go down a little bit like I did today in the second and third, he beat me, no? So just congratulate him and wish him the best for the final."