Madrid Masters 2015 Pt1: Champion Nadal plays ‘the simple game’ to beat Johnson

Rafael Nadal beats Steve Johnson in straight sets in the second round of the Madrid Masters

It would be hard to find a better day’s schedule on the tour than the one offered up to tennis fans on Wonderful Wednesday in the cool blue and grey of the engineering masterpiece that is the Caja Magica in Madrid.

Maria Sharapova was followed by Serena Williams—playing against Victoria Azarenka, no less. Then came a star-studded afternoon of Spain’s finest, No3 seed Rafael Nadal, followed by top seed and tennis’s favourite son—judging by the social media hits on the Mutua Madrid website, at least—Roger Federer.

Add in Andy Murray and Kei Nishikori and the line-up amounted to four of the world’s top five. The only absentee, for the second year in a row, was world No1 Novak Djokovic: Indeed he would be the only man in the top 12 missing from the Madrid draw.

Most eyes, though, were firmly focused on Nadal and Federer. Since this tournament moved to the spring clay in 2009, they have won five titles here, and in the first two of them, they played one another in the final, sharing the honours.

But this time, there could be no final face-off in this most famous of rivalries. After missing so much time from the tour with injury and illness last year, and claiming just one title, the Buenos Aires 250, so far in 2015, Nadal had slipped in the rankings to No4—and he was drawn to face Federer in the Madrid semis.

But both had some red dirt to run before that could happen.

On paper, Nadal’s route looked the easier one. His scheduled quarter-final opponent was Stan Wawrinka or Grigor Dimitrov, neither of whom have been enjoying their best form this spring.

Before that, Nadal would face not a seed after Kevin Anderson lost to Simone Bolelli. So Nadal’s first opponent, 54-ranked Steve Johnson, would be the highest ranked man he could face ahead of the quarters. And Johnson had just won only the fourth clay match of his career, and from a set down in a final-set tie-breaker.

But with a combined 1,600 points to defend here and in Rome, Nadal needed to go deep after a disappointing third-round loss in Barcelona. Indeed Nadal had managed only one top-12 win so far this season, and that a close three-setter against No7 David Ferrer in Monte Carlo.

There was no doubt that Nadal’s confidence remained shaky after such a difficult 2014, and trials with a new racket were this week put on ice until the end of the season in order to find something of his old rhythm and flow.

That said, Federer was in little doubt that Nadal remained the favourite in the Spanish capital: “I still believe Rafa is favourite here even though he’s not been playing his absolute best tennis. It is Spain, it’s Madrid where he’s won in the past, and with Novak not here, I think Rafa is clearly favourite. He’s such a great player, so experienced, that I have no doubt he will be very, very hard to beat.”

Johnson was facing the ‘king of clay’ for the first time, too: daunting enough on its own, but in front of an adoring home crowd, a surely insurmountable task.

The American certainly remained competitive through most of the first set, opening with a love hold, but Nadal made a single break in the fifth game and that was enough to guarantee the first set, 6-4.

Nadal’s serving had been top notch: He dropped only three points on his first serve, and that was from an 80 percent level.

Johnson stayed with Nadal even longer in the second set, but once Nadal got the break in the seventh game, he could do little wrong. He broke the American again to take the set and match, 6-3, in just 74 minutes.

Nadal’s serving had been even neater, missing the mark with just three of 21 first serves, and he ended the match with 14 winners for 13 errors. Johnson had put up a good show, attacking on serve and making 13 points at the net, but this was Nadal’s day, and he looked more at home than he has in many a month. He explained it thus:

“I went out there to do a simple game with no complications. I tried to play easily. I know how things work out when you come from losing a couple of matches. I know that you’re a little bit nervous whenever you finish a game, as I finished the other day with [Fabio] Fognini in Barcelona.

“I tried to start from the bottom and just go up. I think, especially the last three games, I finished pretty well.”

So next up will be Bolelli, against whom Nadal will feel particularly comfortable: the Italian has a single-handed backhand that can be ruthlessly exploited by the leftie serving and forehand of the Spaniard—just ask Federer.

Nadal will find it hard to resist looking ahead in the draw after the dismissal of said Federer and, before that, the loss of Fabio Fognini to Dimitrov, for the Italian has the rare distinction of two victories over Nadal this year on clay.

As Nadal admitted: “I know things are going to work out. I haven’t lost my game. I just need to build my confidence and it’ll work out. I know that either sooner or later it will come back. That’s what I want to think. I’m convinced about it. It’s matter of time. Let’s see when it happens.”

Also in the top half, Tomas Berdych beat Richard Gasquet, 7-6, 7-5, and will next play Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who beat Jack Sock in the third set tie-break.

MORE: Part two – Kyrgios takes out former champ Federer in drama-packed

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