The odds indicated that Rafa Nadal, as the world No.1, would progress into the last four to face Kyle Edmund, were extremely high. The fact that he did not and Marin Cilic went through instead, no one would have predicted and while the match itself swung around with both players alternating sets until the fifth, Nadal remained favourite to close it out.
But then, the top seed, trailing 0-2 in the decider, decided the pain in his hip was too much and threw in the towel.
It’s really unfortunate for Rafa. He’s an unbelievable competitor, always gives his best and very unfortunate for him to finish this way
Leading two set-to-one, Nadal looked set to claim that semi-final slot but he called for the trainer after falling behind in the fourth.
The Spaniard took a medical time-out but was clearly hampered in his movement and, after limping around the court for two games at the start of the fifth set, he headed to the net to shake hands.
The 3-6 6-3 6-7(5) 6-2 2-0 victory gave Cilic his first victory over Nadal since 2009 and sent him through to his first Australian Open semi-final since defeat by Andy Murray in 2010.
Cilic said: “It was an unbelievable performance from both of us. It’s really unfortunate for Rafa. He’s an unbelievable competitor, always gives his best and very unfortunate for him to finish this way.
“When you are wounded. Sometimes the balls are going in, you are a little bit looser, so I was really paying attention to the first couple of games. It was absolutely important for me to continue with my intensity.”
Cilic and Edmund have played once before, with the Croatian winning in straight sets in Shanghai last October.
“He’s had an amazing run,” Cilic said of his next opponent. “A few five setters, tough battles, and then a great match today. Big congratulations to him for making the semi-finals. Kyle is also a big hitter, big serve, big forehand, so I have to take care of my side of the court.”
Nadal had eased into the fourth round but then had a real battle with the diminutive Argentinian Diego Schwartzman lasting nearly four hours. Aggression against Cillic would be the key and for the first set and the first half of the second when he broke for 3-2, he successfully kept to his game plan.
But then the pendulum swung when the Croat started to unleash his powerful forehand and force Nadal into a more defensive mode. He broke the Spaniard twice in a row to go on and secure the set.
Cilic, seeded sixth, carried the momentum in to the third but just couldn’t break down Nadal’s resistance and had to concede it on a tight tie-break.
To his credit, Cilic retained his focus despite seeing Nadal take a medical time out at 1-4 in the fourth, which could well have disrupted his concentration.
Speaking at his post-match press conference, Nadal revealed he would be undergoing an MRI scan on Wednesday to determine the extent of his injury.
“Tomorrow I am going to do a test, an MRI here, then we will know,” Nadal said.
He promised everything would be clearer the next day. “Tomorrow we going to communicate what’s going on after the MRI. It is not the moment to say what’s going on or what not going on because we really don’t know and the doctor really don’t know yet.
“It is better to wait just a few hours. Give me that time, and tomorrow afternoon we’ll let you know.
“Now is not the moment because anything that we can say not going to be true.”
He admitted his leg had felt tired in the third but it finally gave way in the fourth.
“Then in the fourth at one movement, one dropshot I think, I felt something,” Nadal explained. “At that moment I thought something happened, but I didn’t realize how bad in that moment.”
The Mallorcan was obviously not very happy at having to retire and was struggling to deal with the disappointment.
“It is not the first time an opportunity that is gone for me,” he went on. “I am a positive person, and I can be positive, but today is an opportunity lost to be in the semi-finals of a grand slam and fight for an important title for me, no?
“In this tournament already happened a couple of times in my life, so it’s really I don’t want to say frustration, but is really tough to accept, especially after a tough December that I had without having a chance to start in Abu Dhabi and then Brisbane.
“Yeah, I worked hard to be here. We did all the things that we believed were the right things to do to be ready. I think I was ready. I was playing okay. Yeah, I was playing a match that anything could happen: could win, could lose. I’m being honest. He was playing good, too. That’s the real thing.
“But I was fighting for it. I was two sets to one up. Yeah, just accept, recover, come back home, stay with my people, and keep going. That’s all. Always in the tough moments, even if difficult to think about it, there is so many positive things that happened in my career.
“It’s a negative thing, but I don’t going to complain because happened to me more than others. But on other hand I was winning more than almost anyone. That’s the real thing. But who knows, if I didn’t have all these injuries…”