Madrid Masters

Madrid Masters: Nadal eases past Kyrgios, but Thiem and Goffin shine on gloomy Thursday

Spanish No1 Rafael Nadal eases past No16 seed Nick Kyrgios to join Dominic Thiem and David Goffin in semi-finals

Spanish No1 Rafael Nadal Photo: Marianne Bevis

By the time that world No5 and Spanish No1 Rafael Nadal took to court at the end of a cool, stormy, and very un-Spanish day at the Caja Magica, he was the only home-born man to carry the red and gold colours into the quarter-finals of the Madrid Masters. Eleven Spaniards had started, all but Nadal had fallen short by the third round.

But then Nadal is no ordinary Spaniard: former world No1 with 14 Majors, 29 Masters, and Olympic gold to his name, he also boasted three Madrid titles from six finals since this tournament had moved to clay in 2009.

He also arrived here on a wave of form after his injury-marred 2016. His 10th Monte-Carlo title and his 10th Barcelona title brought his tally of clay-court titles to 51. He also made the final of the Australian Open, the Miami Masters and Acapulco, and with his three-hour win over Fabio Fognini in his opener here, he advanced to 30 match-wins for the year, an unbroken 11 wins on clay.

His next match against the 22-year-old No16 seed Nick Kyrgios was highly anticipated, a genuine contender for the ‘popcorn’ match of the day.

The exciting Australian was riding a fine wave of form, having twice beaten Novak Djokovic this year and coming within points of denying Roger Federer in the semis of Miami, where he finally lost the third of three tiebreaks.

Most notably, perhaps, Kyrgios beat Nadal at Wimbledon in 2014 as a teenager, though Nadal won their only other match, on Rome’s clay last year—though it took three sets and two and three-quarter hours.

It is fair to say, then, that the crowds were packed in to see whether Nadal could keep up his campaign, but in the event, it was another match that had not only the fans but almost an entire media centre gripped to the very last point.

Grigor Dimitrov, who broke into the top 10 during a breakthrough season in 2014, had found it tough to push on from that success. Then last year, he suffered a six-match losing streak through Madrid, Rome and the French Open and found himself at No40 in the rankings, his lowest since February 2013.

However, since last summer, and joining forces with a new coach in Dani Vallverdu, everything had changed: Something seemed to click, the confidence returned, along with the wins. Immediately he made the quarters in Toronto and semis in Cincinnati. This year, he won in Brisbane and then Sofia, and in between made a stunning run to the semis in the Australian Open, where he came within touching distance of beating Nadal in a five-set, five-hour thriller.

Coming into Madrid, he had beaten top-10 opponents Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic, Dominic Thiem and David Goffin—and therein lay the story. Now it was players around the same age as Dimitrov—or even younger—who had risen through the ranks and made their way into the top 10. He was having now to face and beat his own generation, not just the older established order. Here, though, he had the chance to press home his claim to top-10 status over one of those younger men, 23-year-old Thiem, a man with whom he had split their previous two matches.

Thiem had kept passing ‘youngest-since’ milestones as he totted up eight titles from 12 finals in under three years, and broke the top 50 at the age of 20, the top 20 at 21, and the top 10 a year ago after reaching his first Major semi-final at the French Open. He went on to reach four Masters quarter-finals, and was now aiming for his first in Madrid.

It looked in the early goings as though Dimitrov’s aggressive and creative all-court game would get the better of his fellow single-hander. He pulled back an initial break with three straight games and broke again to take the first set, 6-4.

He then took a quick lead in the second set, pulling off a break in the fourth game with a Nadal-esque running forehand pass, but Thiem is a resourceful and powerful player, and he showed all that determination and strength to break straight back, and break again to level the match, 6-4.

It came down to a tight, high-quality final set, though again the attacking flair of Dimitrov seemed to take control with a 4-1 lead. But Thiem showed his top-10 credentials again to level at 4-4 and it edged to a tie-break. How Dimitrov would then rue yet more missed chances, only he would know, but he took a 6-3 lead, three match points, only to face some of Thiem’s best serving, 6-6.

Dimitrov worked two more match-points, both thwarted, and Thiem played some big-time winners to earn two match points of his own, earning the last with a backhand volley winner, and he drew one last error from Dimitrov for victory, 7-6(9).

It had taken more than two and a half hours, and had reasserted Thiem as a worthy member of the top-10.

Dimitrov will have to wait a little longer to try to regain that status, and perhaps that will come on his favoured grass, where he made headlines almost a decade back by winning the junior Wimbledon title.

For now, it is Thiem who takes on an even younger player with aspirations for the top, 20-year-old Borna Coric, who put out the No1 seed Andy Murray in straight sets. The Croat won his only previous meeting with Thiem in Miami in March.

Even earlier in the day, two 26 year olds met for the fourth time, No5 seed Milos Raonic and No9 seed David Goffin. The big serving power man from Canada had played little this year as he contended with a leg injury, and he was up against a man who is one of best movers on a tennis court: the slight and nimble Goffin makes up for lack of stature with speed and timing.

Three times Goffin had made the semis at a Masters, and twice the quarters at a Major, but his credentials were considerable less than those of Raonic. However, the Belgian, playing Raonic for the first time on clay, was able to run the Canadian ragged, 6-4, 6-2.

It marked Goffin’s 27th win of the year—having made the finals in Sofia and Rotterdam plus the semis in Monte-Carlo already—and his eighth top-10 victory. He will now have the chance to add Nadal to that tally, though few will give him much of a chance. He may have beaten Djokovic in Monte-Carlo but he then lost to Nadal, in their only meeting to date, 6-3, 6-1.

For that Nadal-Kyrgios contest proved to be a one-sided affair, 6-3, 6-1, with the younger man undoubtedly affected by the time spent away from court in recent weeks following a family bereavement. He admitted afterwards:

“It was always going to be tough. Rafa, he’s won this tournament so many times. He plays so well on the clay.

“I haven’t had the best preparations coming into this tournament. I didn’t really train for a week and a half, so to even come here and win a couple rounds… I wasn’t expecting myself to play well this week at all. I won a couple rounds and lost to Rafa. I’m relatively happy with my first week on clay. But he played well tonight. He was by far the better player.”

It was ever thus for all the generations who have followed Nadal on the clay, and the chances are, it will be the same for Goffin, no matter how fast his feet.

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