It may have regretted the injury absence of the ever-popular Juan Martin del Potro and the creative Richard Gasquet, and then the retirement of Benoit Paire and the exciting talent of Dominic Thiem.
But come quarter-finals day, Madrid had men to cheer from start to finish. For this tennis-saturated nation, boasting 10 players in the top 50, had a Spaniard in each of the four matches.
It was the first time in over a decade that Madrid could celebrate four home players at this stage, but with two men ranked in the top five, three among the 16 seeds and a total of 12 in the 56-strong draw, the odds always looked good.
The surprise though was the quartet that was left standing.
No shock that world No1 and clay wizard Rafael Nadal topped the schedule. The remarkable Spaniard has an unparalleled record on the red stuff, epitomised by his return to the tour after seven months’ injury last year, starting on clay in Febrary. He would win 10 titles from 14 finals, six from eight finals on clay. Indeed after losing the final in Monte Carlo, he made a clean sweep through Barcelona, the Madrid and Rome Masters, and Roland Garros.
No surprise either that his 32-year-old compatriot David Ferrer was in the mix.
For the blood-on-the-court Ferrer, age seemed only to burnish his achievements, blessed with a physical and mental fortitude matched only, perhaps, by Nadal himself. He completed one of his best ever seasons last year with two titles from nine finals and a career-high ranking of No3. With a tour-leading season of 84 matches, it was the fourth straight year in which he had won at least 55 matches.
Ferrer’s record on clay was also impressive: 11 of 21 titles came on red dirt, along with 14 further finals, and he had proved himself this season already not just by winning the Buenos Aires title but by ended his 17-match losing clay streak against Nadal in the Monte Carlo quarter-final.
More of a surprise was the third ranked Spaniard in the quartet, another 32-year-old veteran of some pedigree, Feliciano Lopez.
A former top-15 player, Lopez has excelled less on clay than his compatriots. None of his three titles and only one of two finals were reached on clay, for Lopez is an attacking player inclined to serve-and-volley. But he notched up his 90th career win on clay over Sao Paulo champion Federico Delbonis in the first round in this his home tournament and advanced to the quarters courtesy of the withdrawal of Thiem.
Between them, these three Spaniards had played at the Madrid Masters no fewer than 37 times—Nadal and Ferrer completing a round dozen apiece and Lopez enjoying his 13th visit. And between them they had reached 19 quarter-finals, though Nadal stood head and shoulders above the others in his rate of success. Only once in the last nine years had he failed to reach the quarters, and he was a three-time champion.
But what of the fourth Spanish man?
Ranked at No45, Roberto Bautista Agut was not just in his first Madrid draw and his first Madrid quarter-final, but in his first Masters quarter-final. The Spaniard had earned his place with impressive back-to-back wins over compatriots Tommy Robredo and Fernando Verdasco. He also had on his 2014 resume two wins over top-10 players, del Potro at the Australian Open and Tomas Berdych in Indian Wells.
As luck would have it, he played a man also playing his first Masters quarter-final. And the No46-ranked Colombian, Santiago Giraldo, had more in common with Bautista Agut—aged 26 and with an identical 18-11 win-loss run this year.
Based on 2014 form and ranking, then, this looked an even contest—which is more than could be said of Nadal’s match, even though he took on the formidable world No6, Berdych.
The powerful Czech, making his 10th appearance in Madrid, had been a finalist in 2012, and had put together a strong 2014, including a career-best 11-match winning streak, the Rotterdam title and Dubai final. But his record against Nadal was, well almost a record. In their previous 20 matches, Nadal had won 17 times—and the last 16 in a row.
Nadal faced break point in his very first service game, and twice faced deuce, but that was as close as Berdych came to breaking the Spaniard, who looked every inch the defending champion. Nadal broke in the seventh game of the first set with a blistering return-of-serve winning forehand, and went on a run of 13 from 17 points at the start of the second set to break in the third game. The victory was completed with a second break in the seventh game as Nadal stormed to the win, 6-4, 6-2 season.
He would, as it turned out, face the lowest ranked Spaniard of the set, Bautista Agut, who showed all the stubbornness of Ferrer and all the “vamos” passion of Nadal to hold off break points as he served for an impressive win in just 87 minutes, 6-3, 6-4.
Remarkably, the two Spaniards have never met on the main tour, but for all his impressive form this season, and a rise in ranking from 73 at the start of the year to what will be a career high well inside the top 40 after his Madrid run—it’s hard to see him handling Nadal.
Ferrer’s match looked a straight-forward one on paper: Twice he had played No20 Ernests Gulbis and twice he had won. But he would have to find his resolute best to get the better of the surging Latvian.
A new-model Gulbis, so long his own worst fiery enemy on a tennis court, had shown new maturity, determination and application this season. He reached a career-high No18 in February after winning the title in Marseille with wins over top-10 players Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and then reached the semis in Rotterdam after beating del Potro. And he had powered through a tough segment of the Madrid draw in impressive style.
But a determined Ferrer, bristling with energy, played near faultless tennis, both in pounding baseline rallies and gritty defence, to live with the superior serving of Gulbis in the first set. He bustled through the tie-break, put his head down and turned around an early break from the Latvian in the second set to surge through four straight games. The admirable Ferrer sealed his semi spot, 7-6(3), 6-3, but could his fellow 32-year-old Spaniard make it a clean sweep?
Lopez’s opponent was No10 seed Kei Nishikori, one of the players of the season after an injury-marred start. Also on the verge of a top-10 ranking, he was unbeaten in 12 matches, the last eight on clay.
A break in each set was enough for Nishikori to record a 6-4 6-4 victory in 92 minutes.
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BIOGRAPHY: Cesc Fabregas