Rafael Nadal burst onto the Key Biscayne center court 13 years ago, a swashbuckling long-haired 17-year-old in a muscle shirt as red as a matador’s cape. The young Spaniard was ranked 34 in the world at the time, and he rocked the tennis establishment by bewildering top-ranked Roger Federer with his top spin, winning the third-round match 6-3, 6-3.
Year after year he has been back to the Tennis Center at Crandon Park and drawn huge adoring crowds who shout “Vamos, Rafa!” every time he needs a lift. Four times he has reached the final — in 2005, 2008, 2011 and 2014. But he has never lifted the trophy.
Nadal has won 14 Grand Slams and 69 titles over his career but none in Key Biscayne. On Friday evening, he made the first step toward that elusive title by overpowering the gusting wind and Israeli Dudi Sela 6-3, 6-4 to advance to a third-round match against Philipp Kohlschreiber.
Nadal is 30 years old now and has climbed back up to No. 7 after struggling with injuries for a few years. He reached the final of the Australian Open and lost in an epic five-set match to Federer. He says he would love to add a Miami Open title to his résumé and will do whatever it takes.
“It was so difficult to play, a tough and long day for everyone with rain, delay a couple of times, and then the wind was very, very high,” Nadal said. “It was difficult to find the right feeling on the court. These kind of days, what you have to do is try to win. That’s what I did, and I’m very happy with that.”
Despite the tricky weather here, and his inability thus far to clinch a title, Nadal lobbied to keep the tournament in Miami in light of legal battles that have prevented major upgrades.
“It’s obvious all the tournaments need improvements, and this tournament had some troubles to make that happen, but the players’ area for having lunch has improved a lot the last two years,” he said. “I had lunch here today and the food improved a lot, which is important for players. Key Biscayne is a gorgeous place, and I hope it stays here; but if it has to move, the most important thing is that the tournament stays in Miami because Miami is a city well known all around the world, and it’s important we have our most important tournaments in important cities.”
Nadal and Federer are both back in top form and could wind up facing each other in the final here, while Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have struggled and are skipping the Miami Open with elbow injuries. But Nadal says it is far too early to suggest that he and 35-year-old Federer will replace Djokovic and Murray atop the rankings.
“The year just started,” Nadal said. “We have nine Master 1000s and have only played one. We have four Grand Slams and only played one. It is true Roger started unbelievable, and I am playing well. Andy and Novak didn’t start as strong as they did last couple of years. But in my opinion, they are the favorites because they have been there for the last couple of years, playing more consistently than we did.”
The rain delays pushed the night matches late, and Venus Williams’ match against 20-year-old Brazilian Beatriz Haddad Maia didn’t begin until 10:45 p.m. Williams prevailed, 6-4, 6-3 at 12:15 a.m., and five other matches were still in progress.
“I wasn’t expecting that schedule, to be honest,” Williams said. “I was a little surprised. I was just happy it didn’t rain and I was happy just to get on court. You sit and wait and watch. But that’s tennis. It’s very unusual not to know when your match is going to begin.”
Williams, a three-time champion here, said the weather conditions and Haddad Maia made it a challenging match.
“It wasn’t easy out there, the wind felt like a gale force,” she said. “I never saw her before. I didn’t know what to expect. I think she was taller than me, so pound for pound it was a real contest. I’m very impressed with her game and determination, and that will take her very far.”
Among the family members watching Williams’ match was her father, Richard, who had been ill and has not been around much on tour in the past two years.
Another American, Madison Keys, the No. 8 seed, cruised past Viktoria Golubic 6-1, 6-2. Keys, working her way back from a wrist injury, said she enjoys the conditions on Key Biscayne and it feels like home because she grew up in Boca Raton.
“I like playing on these courts, they suit my game pretty well,” she said. “I played Orange Bowl here, definitely comfortable here.”
Christina McHale, the 46th-ranked American, was not as fortunate. She led 6-0, 3-2 Thursday night over No. 6 Garbine Muguruza and appeared on her way to a major upset over the French Open champion when rain forced the postponement of the match until Friday afternoon. Muguruza wound up winning 0-6, 7-6 (8-6), 6-4.
“I’m not going to use the rain delay as an excuse because I did have chances to win the match, had a match point, and I didn’t close out,” McHale said. “But I can take positives from it because I got so close to beating a Top 10 player and that motivates me going forward, knowing I am so close.”
The biggest upset Friday was 594th-ranked wild card Ajla TomljaIndian beating Indian Wells champion Elena Vesnina 3-6, 6-4, 7-5.
Other players who advanced included: top-ranked Angelique Kerber, Jack Sock, Jared Donaldson, Milos Raonic, Jeremy Chardy, Kei Nishikori, Taylor Townsend, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Simona Halep and Sam Stosur. Venus Williams played in the late-night match.