He quickly closed the gap Thursday, and by the time they reached the tiebreaker, he was fully dialed in. Rafa won seven of eight points, taking the first set on the way to a pedestrian 7-6 (1), 6-1, 6-2 victory.
No. 4 seed Andy Murray -- the man he might meet in the semifinals -- was similarly crisp and untroubled in his 6-2, 6-3, 6-3 win over American Donald Young. He was off the court in less than two hours and, like Nadal, probably was pleased to see his next opponent struggling.
Thus, the big four -- including No. 1 Novak Djokovic and No. 3 Roger Federer -- are through to the quarterfinals. Believe it or not, it's the first time the top four seeds all have advanced to the final eight in 27 years.
A big part of succeeding in the seven-match Grand Slam gauntlet is judicious time management. By winning easily, Murray and Nadal helped themselves immensely, stockpiling a few extra hours of leisure time in advance of their quarterfinal matches. Andy Roddick and David Ferrer -- after being relocated to Court 13 after the Louis Armstrong court sprung a leak -- were still playing more than an hour later. So were John Isner and Gilles Simon over on Court 17.
On Friday, Rafa will oppose Roddick, and Murray will face Isner.
"Andy is a fantastic player," Nadal said. "He's having one of the best careers, being in the top 10 for, I don't know, 10 years. That's a lot. That's amazing. I have big respect for Andy, especially he's very tough to be there for a long time."
Nadal has won six of nine career matches against Roddick, but they split two a year ago. Roddick won in three sets at Miami, while Nadal was the three-set winner at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals.
Murray, meanwhile, is 1-0 against Isner, beating him in straight sets at last year's Australian Open.
"John, he's got a huge serve and can hit big forehands and is a little bit erratic," Murray said. "And doesn't give you much rhythm."
2. Daunting path for Rafa: Among his top-four peers, Nadal seems the least capable of playing four matches in five days. He's had a variety of physical issues from fingers to blisters on his feet to that jarring episode when his right leg was locked up with cramps.
"I am in the quarterfinals," Nadal said. "That's not fair, but that's what it is. I had a lot of interesting meeting[s] with the TV; for sure is better to have the final on Sunday for them.
"But not for the players, because our part of the draw will be in a very difficult situation for the player who will be in the final. The semifinals maybe, too, because two days in a row playing tough matches is difficult. If you don't have rest, you have a big chance not be enough fit to play well the next match."
3. Embracing the moment: Murray isn't thrilled with the prospect of four matches in five days, either.
"Well, it's not ideal, but that's kind of what you have to deal with just now," he said stoically before it was announced that the men's final would be on Monday. "You've just got to get on with it. Like obviously the last few days haven't been great, but also, there's nothing it was raining anyway. There's nothing we could have done about it at the time; there's no covers and whatnot.
"So you've just got to try and embrace the situation and do all the right things to get yourself ready if you have to play four matches in four days. But I'm still a long way from having to play four matches in four days."
4. Best-of-three? One suggestion that has been floated is having the men play best-of-three matches like they do at non-Grand Slams. Murray didn't like the sound of that.
"No," he said, "I'd rather just go for it now and try and get it done in a way. I think if something happens to a player or something, the final turns out to be an absolute, you know, dead match because someone's so tired, I think it would show up.
"Yeah, obviously a lot of flaws have shown up, but it would be time to say, 'Look, this is meant to be the biggest match or one of the biggest matches in tennis, and it's messed up because of schedule.' I think we should just try and play the best-of-five, try and get through it."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.