Montreal Masters 2013: Nadal downs Djokovic for tilt at Canadian Raonic

Montreal Masters 2013: Rafael Nadal beats Novak Djokovic to set up a final showdown against Milos Raonic

rafael nadal
Rafael Nadal beat Novak Djokovic in three sets on Saturday Photo: Marianne Bevis

The closing Saturday of this year’s Rogers Cup in Montreal began quietly enough. The sun shone, the wind had blown away the city’s heavy humidity, and an air of calm filled the Uniprix Stadium as the early shuttle unloaded its first fans.

But with each passing hour, the buzz grew as the crowds poured in. There was not a face that did not wear a smile. For on this concluding Saturday, semi-final day, things could not have worked out better for the home nation.

The bottom half of the draw had lost its big seeds—David Ferrer and Andy Murray, Tomas Berdych and Juan Martin del Potro—but the latter pair had been sent packing by two of six Canadians in the main draw. The established No11 seed, Milos Raonic would face off against the fast-rising No71 wild card, Vasek Pospisil.

It marked the first time since 1969 that a Canadian had reached the semi-finals. That they played one another also meant a Canadian was guaranteed a place in the final for the first time since 1958. And both 23-year-old Pospisil and 22-year-old Raonic were playing in their first Masters semi, though for Raonic it was his 12th semi on the tour. Should he reach the final, it would take him into the top 10 for the first time. If Pospisil survived, he would break the top 40.

So the scenario was enough to ensure one of the most up-beat days on the Masters circuit this year, but things got better—and ensured a worldwide audience—as the day advanced to evening.

For the top half of the draw resolved in an entirely different, but equally satisfactory, way. Three-time and defending champion, world No1 Novak Djokovic, would meet the two-time former champion and No1 in the rankings race, Rafael Nadal, for a record-equalling 36th time. Only Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe had built up a rivalry of similar size.

Yet in all those 35 previous meetings, they had only once met in Canada, in the 2007 semis. Djokovic won, 7-5, 6-3, and had gone on to win 11 of their 14 matches on outdoor hard courts. The last was their record-breaking five-set final at the 2012 Australian Open.

Since then, however, Nadal had won four of their five matches, including an equally spellbinding five-setter at this year’s French Open.

And while Djokovic had stacked up a 42-6 record in 2013, 23-2 on hard courts, with three titles from four finals, Nadal—who only rejoined the tour after the Australian Open—had a remarkable seven titles from nine finals, amounting to a 46-3 run, and a clean sheet on hard courts of 8-0. No wonder the tennis world was excited about their latest encounter.

No-one expected anything less, but this was guns blazing from the first ball. Subtle it was not, as each pinned the other to the baseline with blistering ground strokes, top-notch accuracy and remarkable depth from a court that rewarded pace and precision.

Few, though, may have expected such a quick breakthrough from Nadal in the opening game—though he was helped by Djokovic serving up two double faults. The Serb had a chance to strike straight back at 0-40, but the Spaniard held firm with some remarkably aggressive tennis, and the same tactics earned him another break point. Djokovic again double faulted to give Nadal a 5-2 lead.

Now Djokovic wrenched control of the increasingly intense rallies and converted the second of two break points, but Nadal served out the set, 6-4.

It took longer for either man to gain any leverage in the second set. They hit with such depth and speed, defended so well—after 35 matches, these two can read each other’s plays with almost eerie accuracy—that they could work not a break point nor venture from the baseline until the eighth game. Then Djokovic got a tiny opening on Nadal’s serve to bring up break point. Nadal was called for time violation, hit a forehand long, and the Serb broke.

He had 53 points to Nadal’s 54, but after a hubbub when the scoreboard went awry—Nadal had earned a break point but it didn’t record—Djokovic served out the set, 6-3.

As expected, this would take a decider, and what a decider it was. They began the third set separated by just one point—now in Djokovic’s favour—and tested and probed into longer and longer exchanges as the crowd became more vocal: chanting, standing, clapping.

Djokovic had the edge in the support but Nadal had the edge on the scoreboard by dint of serving first. And it was Nadal who first tried some surprise tactics, making a rare drop-shot winner followed by an ace to hold in the fifth, and coming into the net for a difficult pick-up volley in the sixth. This smart play brought him two break chances but the result would not be so easily decided. Only a tie-break would separate them.

Now Nadal’s clever tactics came into their own. First he came in for a volley winner, then drew Djokovic in with a slice down the line, only to pass him with a forehand winner. He did the same at 5-0, drew another error with another sliced backhand for 6-0, and despite a couple of exocet winners from Djokovic, Nadal served it out with ease, 7-2.

The match had been, as it always is, a gladiatorial battle of gasp-inducing baseline attack and defence. Nadal triumphed in two and half hours by just two points and with a slight tactical edge—and his serve and overhead strength are perhaps the most improved and most under-rated elements of his game.

By reaching the final, Nadal will overtake Ferrer to regain No3 in the rankings, and will meet the newest man in the top 10, Raonic, for a fourth time. He has beaten the young 6ft 5in Canadian on each occasion but has not faced him on a hard court—and certainly not one as fast as this—since Tokyo in 2011.

The Canadian match was an intense, entertaining affair that suggested the newer man on the block, Pospisil, playing up-beat, aggressive tennis, might soon be heading to the top 10, as well. He opened the match with an ace, the first of 14 in the match, and both men had multiple chances to break in the opening games. It took 23 minutes to reach 2-2, but Raonic managed the only break in the sixth to take the set, 6-4.

Pospisil, showing a boldness and energy that clearly captivated the crowd, surged back to break twice for the second set, 6-1.

The third was nip and tuck, with not a break point on either side. It was decided, appropriately, by a tie-break that was edged 7-4 by the more experienced Raonic, though he had won fewer points—92 to Pospisil’s 100—made fewer aces, more double faults and achieved just one break to Pospisil’s two.

Theirs could become one of the big rivalries of the future, enhanced by their contrasting personalities and their shared homeland. But it will be a very long time before it matches that of Djokovic and Nadal.

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