Rafael Nadal takes giant step forward at Shanghai

When Rafael Nadal finally won yet another bruising epic against 6-foot-11 ace-maker Ivo Karlovic at the China Open on Wednesday, he leaped to deliver one of his trademark uppercuts and bellow "Vamos!"

Nadal was clearly overjoyed with the 7-5, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4) win. So what if it was just a third-round match? Karlovic is one of the most dangerous players on the ATP Tour -- and an ideal stumbling block for the struggling Nadal.

Granted, at 36, Karlovic is older than dirt and even Roger Federer. And the Croatian is ranked a modest No. 21 with no Masters singles titles (never mind a Grand Slam) to his credit. But Karlovic is also playing some of the best tennis of his life. He's finally figured out that his height and wingspan can be put to use doing something other than raining down aces.

For many years, Karlovic would blast that serve and then act as if he'd suddenly been transformed into someone like, oh, David Ferrer. Karlovic wouldn't back that cannon up with the aggressive, forward-moving game it deserved -- at least not consistently. But he's started to see the light. He's playing a lot of serve-and-volley now, and it's been a boon to his career in numerous ways.

All that was problematic for Nadal. The struggling "King of Clay" and 14-time Grand Slam singles champion has repeatedly said -- and demonstrated -- that he's fallen as low as No. 8 this year, mostly because of his misfiring nerves. And big servers who can shut down the baseline game and keep constant pressure on opponents to hold, especially in tiebreakers, are hell on timid or uncertain players.

Nadal and Karlovic had met on four previous occasions between 2004 and 2011, during happier times for Nadal and mostly darker ones for Karlovic. Nadal won all four meetings, but two of the three-setters were resolved just like this one -- by a third-set tiebreaker.

And there was no questioning Nadal's exuberance when this match finally ended after 2 hours, 43 minutes of exhausting tennis.

Nadal took the first set on the strength of a break. He had a mini-break in the second-set tiebreaker, but Karlovic, pressing the attack, slashed and volleyed his way back and calmly served it out.

The stage was set for Nadal to waver, perhaps remember all the leads he'd squandered in this frustrating year. Instead, he lifted his game. The old snap was back in his forehand. The swerve returned to his serve. The furrowed brow we've seen so much of in recent months was suddenly set in determination.

After the formalities of holding serve in the third set, it came down to a tiebreaker once again. The two points Nadal served starting at 2-3 were telling.

Neither man had given up a mini-break to that point, and the pressure was building. On the first point, Nadal cracked a vintage, inside-out forehand winner off Karlovic's service return. Next, Karlovic ended a brief rally with a sharp cross-court backhand approach and galloped toward the net. But Nadal nailed a perfect forehand pass down the line.

Karlovic cracked soon thereafter, thanks no doubt to the pressure Nadal was able to apply -- as well as the heat he resisted. All in all, Karlovic approached the net 79 times, finding success 41 times. Nadal had 39 winners in the match, 19 of them passing shots, and he made just 14 unforced errors.

But the statistics don't record the degree of determination Nadal felt as the match wore on, nor do they track confidence. That's what finally enabled him to take what might be remembered as a giant step in his comeback.