Lloyd Harris earned the biggest win of his career on Thursday evening, defeating Rafael Nadal 6-4, 1-6 6-4 to reach the Citi Open quarter-finals.
Nadal overcame a lingering foot injury on Wednesday evening to beat home favourite Jack Sock in a final-set tie-break in front of an energised crowd. But the South African would not allow the top seed to work his magic again.
"Today was really special. I think I have had some big wins, and this year I have beat some Grand Slam champions," Harris said. "But to beat a 20-time Grand Slam champion, and especially in front of a full crowd and with such an amazing atmosphere, it was definitely something very special."
The pain did not impact Nadal’s fighting spirit — and the Spaniard said he felt better against Harris — but it was not enough to topple the South African. The World No. 50 improved to 2-5 against Top 10 opponents after two hours and 11 minutes.
"I did a lot of good things. I think the best thing was to stay in the moment, keep my composure, and I think I just stayed with my game and stayed playing a consistently good level throughout the match," Harris said. "It was a good, quality match, I think. Not easy for me out there. It was pretty physical, but all in all, I'm just super happy with how everything turned out."
There was no Citi Open last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the fans have come out in full force this year, especially for Nadal’s matches. As the top seed won critical points, roars echoed from the stands and many Nadal supporters leapt to their feet. But they were fair to Harris as well, especially when the unseeded right-hander hit a stunning lob on match point to complete his victory.
Harris showed no apprehension early in his first ATP Head2Head clash against the 88-time tour-level titlist. The South African held his ground on the baseline and went hard and flat to Nadal’s forehand, pushing the lefty back as he continued to fire away.
The 20-time major winner has become known for his unrelenting offence and ability to control play with his forehand. But stunningly, Harris hit nine forehand winners to just two for the Mallorcan in the opener, seizing the only break of the set to take the lead.
But Nadal claimed the momentum with one wicked forehand passing shot. The Spaniard broke for 3-1 in the second set with a curler down the line. The lefty took a quick skip and unleashed a massive “Vamos!” as the fans roared. From there, he began to play more aggressively and cruised through the rest of the set as Harris fell further behind the baseline.
The third set, however, became a battle of wills. Nadal did not want to give ground, but Harris was unafraid of the moment and went after his shots to put pressure on the top seed. Screams of “Vamos!” became more frequent from Nadal as he attempted to claw through.
But on his first break point of the decider, Harris did not panic when a Nadal shot bounced off the top of the net. Although he was unable to put away the passing shot, he curled a lob on the next ball over a helpless Nadal’s head.
This was another demonstration of the 24-year-old’s potential. The South African this year became the first qualifier to advance past the Dubai quarter-finals in the tournament’s 29-year history. At that event, Harris won seven matches in seven days to advance from qualifying to the championship match.
Harris defeated Nishikori during that run and he will try to do it again on Friday. The Japanese star beat in-form Briton Cameron Norrie 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 to make the quarter-finals.
"It's going to be a very tough battle and I think a very different game style than I faced today," Harris said. "It's going to be a new challenge and I look forward to it."
In the same half of the draw, Americans Denis Kudla and Mackenzie McDonald will meet in the other quarter-final. Kudla beat #NextGenATP American Brandon Nakashima 3-6, 7-6(3), 6-4 and McDonald eliminated Belarusian Ilya Ivashka 6-4, 6-4.