Last year, the tournament lost its top two seeds, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, in the quarters and the third round respectively. This year, it has seen the top two fall even sooner.
Already coping with the loss of No1 Djokovic to young shooting star Grigor Dimitrov in his first match, Madrid now has to face the departure of defending champion Roger Federer, who was soundly beaten by the 23-year-old No14 seed, Kei Nishikori, 6-4, 1-6, 6-2.
Separated by eight years and 73 titles, Federer and Nishikori had met only once before: the Swiss won the Basel final in 2011, 6-1 6-3. But even then, Nishikori had laid down his marker, taking out both No6 seed Tomas Berdych and top seed Djokovic along the way.
He ended that breakthrough year at a career-high 25 and went on to consolidate with a quarter-final finish at the Australian Open and the title in Tokyo, but his progress was impeded by injury through the whole clay swing.
He began 2013 inside the top 20 but also with an ankle injury, only to surge back with a title run in Memphis, and brought a 15-6 record to Madrid, where he opened with two straight-sets wins over strong opponents, Jurgen Melzer and Viktor Troicki.
Even so, and taking account of Federer returning to the tour after seven weeks away, few expected Nishikori to advance beyond the Swiss. Even though Federer lost the first set, his had been the dominant tennis, with a couple of mistimed shots in the fifth game marring a near-perfect serving performance.
Nishikori broke that fifth game and held his advantage through to the set’s 6-4 conclusion, but apart from that, Federer won all but one point on his serve.
Come the second set, order was apparently restored, with Nishikori facing break points in his first game before finally holding—but he did not win another game. And this time, Federer’s stats were even better: He dropped just four points in his six service games.
Judging from his body language at the change of ends, he looked supremely relaxed—though his words to the umpire suggested a keenness to keep up his momentum rather than wait for the drying of the over-watered terracotta dirt.
But Nishikori regrouped well. He held off deuce in the third game and upped the tempo with some penetrating and angled ground strokes off both wings, working away at the Federer backhand but also forcing errors from the forehand.
It was, indeed, the Japanese man who looked the more nimble and aggressive as the set went on, while Federer mis-timed a growing number of returns and struggled to find a first serve. His average plummeted to below 50 per cent mid-set, but it was a couple of wide forehands that conceded the break.
Nishikori consolidated his 4-1 lead with increasingly confident serving and, at 5-2, took an unexpected match-winning break courtesy of four more forehand errors from Federer.
For Nishikori, it was the win of his career so far, but surely there is more to come from just one of the five men aged 23 or under in the top 50. His all-court game and speed of foot can translate to all surfaces and disrupt the rhythm of much bigger players.
And, as the only remaining seed in his quarter, he has a very good chance of reaching his second Masters semi-final when he takes on wild card Pablo Andujar, who advanced when Daniel Gimeno-Traver pulled out injured.
Until then, he will savour the current win over the man who has always been his idol: “Actually, to beat [Federer], that was one of my goals for my tennis career. It happens on clay and it’s amazing.”
Federer, too, will have reason to remember this unforeseen loss, not least because it hands back the No2 ranking to Murray before the Briton has even played his third-round match. It also leaves Federer without a title for the longest stretch into a season since his very first title 12 years ago.
He admitted after his first match in Madrid that he couldn’t remember the last time he had spent such a stretch of time at home in Switzerland and, further into the season, he will expect that to bear fruit. Meanwhile, his next stop is Rome, but still with only two matches on the clay to prepare him:
“I’m going to make sure I’m as well prepared as I can be for Rome… I’m going to go back to the practice court, train hard and make sure I don’t have these kinds of days any more…At least I’ll come out with some ideas of what I need to work on.”
The favourite for the Madrid title—and the favourite of the home crowd—showed no sign of the problems he had at the Magic Box last year: Nadal raced past a weary Mikhail Youzhny, 6-2, 6-3.
He will face the man who has usurped his top-four ranking for most of this year, compatriot David Ferrer. The 31-year-old finally brought an end to Tommy Haas’s impressive unbeaten fortnight on clay in one of the highest-quality contests of the tournament thus far, an intense three-setter that Ferrer pulled back from a break down in the third set.
But for Ferrer, so popular with his home crowd, he now takes on not just his nemesis but probably the Spanish fans, too.
In the top half of the draw, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the highest seed remaining in the quarter, took out Fernando Verdasco. The other quarter saw Berdych put up a formidable display in taking out Kevin Anderson and will be the man to beat if Murray advances to the quarters.
For now though, and probably for some time in the future, he can relish the status of world No2.
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