Rafael Nadal needed all his trademark grit and determination on Wednesday when he was taken to a third-set tie-break by towering ace king Ivo Karlovic in a dramatic opening match at the Shanghai Masters.
After Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray safely went through, Nadal was in danger of following Roger Federer to the exit when the 6ft 11ins (2.11m) Croatian zipped 24 aces past the 14-time grand slam winner.
But Karlovic, who has fired more aces than any other player in tennis history, fatally double-faulted at 4-4 in the tense final-set tie-breaker, giving Nadal a shot at victory which he did not miss.
Nadal’s excited reaction to the breathless 7-5 6-7 (4-7) 7-6 (7-4) win, when he leapt in the air and pumped his fists, and then stood with his arms aloft, left no doubt about how much the victory meant.
The Spaniard had earlier whalloped three return winners in a row, from Karlovic’s giant serve, at 4-5 down in the first set to break the Croatian and ultimately take a one-set lead.
“That game was so important – probably one of the best games return in my career,” said Nadal.
“Yeah, almost a miracle. Three winners from his first serve. That was really amazing.”
Defending champion Federer tamely succumbed to 70th-ranked Albert Ramos-Vinolas on Tuesday but Nadal’s win means the other big names march on at Shanghai’s Qi Zhong Stadium.
Top-ranked Djokovic, fresh from his sixth China Open victory in Beijing, breezed past Martin Klizan 6-2 6-1 as he seeks his ninth title of a year in which he won three of the four grand slams.
“Considering the fact that I’ve won so many matches this year and tournaments, probably the best season of my life definitely, anywhere I go I’m confident,” said the Serb, who moves to 69-5 this season.
Murray, another two-time winner in Shanghai, zipped past Steve Johnson 6-2 6-4, and French Open champion Stan Wawrinka beat Viktor Troicki 7-6 (7-3) 6-3.
Federer complained that he found it tough to adapt to the Shanghai conditions after he went out to Ramos-Vinolas, but Murray said he had arrived early enough to acclimatise.
“It does take a bit of time to get used to the conditions here. But for me, that was a big positive in getting here early this year, that I’ve had five days to get used to it,” the 2010 and 2011 champion said.
Australia’s No.1 Bernard Tomic reached the third round when he beat David Ferrer 6-4 6-2 – denting the Spaniard’s hopes of qualifying for the World Tour Finals in London.
But Tomic’s outspoken compatriot Nick Kyrgios flirted with a 28-day ban after he was slapped with his second code violation in as many matches during his 1-6 6-4 6-4 loss to Japan’s Kei Nishikori.