Madrid Masters

Madrid Masters: Nadal sets 50th contest with Djokovic & veteran Cuevas into first Masters semi

Rafael Nadal will face his old rival Novak Djokovic for a place in the Madrid final as Pablo Cuevas moves into the last four

Rafael Nadal will face his nemesis Novak Djokovic in semi-finals Photo: Marianne Bevis

The spread of seeds and non-seeds in the quarter-finals of the Mutua Madrid Open was already bottom heavy.

All three unseeded players joined No8 seed Dominic Thiem in the top half, with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in the bottom half. And before play even got under way, the balance was distorted further by the withdrawal of No6 seed Kei Nishikori with a wrist injury.

It was understandable, given that he was drawn to play the defending champion and world No2 for a 14th time, and had not beaten him in the last 10 meetings. That inflammation could only get worse against such odds and bombardment.

So Djokovic was into the semis, leaving the other former champion and the most prolific clay-court winner of the Open era, No4 seed Nadal, a strong favourite to join him there.

In the top half, however, there was only one seed left, No8 Dominic Thiem, and not only had none of the four made a Masters final before, none had made a Masters semi-final before.

Two 20-year-olds, Borna Coric and Alexander Zverev, had dispensed with several of the big names: Coric beat top seed Andy Murray, while Zverev beat No7 seed Marin Cilic and then No11 Tomas Berdych.

Veteran Pablo Cuevas had not beaten a seed but battled through three three-setters to earn his place in what was the fairytale run of the tournament: This was his third Masters quarter-final of the year, after failing to do so in all previous 28 Masters appearances.

Thiem had won eight titles form 12 finals, broke the top 10 a year ago after reaching his first Major semi-final at the French Open, and was now into his fifth Masters quarter-final, but he too was seeking his first Masters semi.

All four men, though, had one thing in common. They had all won a clay-court title this year. The only man in the bottom half to do so was Nadal—and he had arrived here with his 10th Monte-Carlo and 10th Barcelona titles.

First up was the #NextGen star and leader of the Race to Turin, Zverev, against the 31-year-old Cuevas, a late bloomer who had won all six titles from all nine finals since 2014. He didn’t win a Masters match until 2008 and did not play a full season of Masters until 2015. Then this year, he made the quarters in Indian Wells and Monte-Carlo—beating Stan Wawrinka, and going on to pick up the doubles title, too.

Few, though, gave him a chance against the big, power player and fast-rising star Zverev. Even fewer expected him to win after the young German pounded through the first set with the only break and 16 out of 17 first serves won, 6-3. He had made 10 winners to just three errors in a swift 23 minutes.

But Zverev lost concentration, or perhaps relaxed too much, and went off the boil at the start of the second set while Cuevas upped his aggression, and got the crowd on its feet and on his side with some glittering shot-making. The chased-down lob, hit under arm and blind for a winner, drew applause and a big grin of disbelief from Zverev. It came in what was already a testing service game with four break point chances, and Cuevas seized the last of them, 2-0.

Zverev’s serve went missing with his concentration, and that boosted the man from Uruguay still more. He broke again, held to love, and broke once more at the third attempt to whitewash the set, 6-0.

This high-tempo encounter raced on, now with Zverev forcing more intensity from his game. He roared ‘Come-on’ with his first game, held to love for 3-3, and again for 4-4. But Cuevas had found a winning formula, and he was executing superbly. Drop-shots here, cross-court finishes there, and not a few single-handed backhand winners down the line.

Now Zverev was serving to save the set, but Cuevas stood toe-to-toe in a couple of long backhand exchanges, and the German blinked first to bring up break points. With an hour and a half on the clock, he won it, 6-4, to reach his first Masters semi-final.

For Zverev, fatigue may have played a part: this was his eighth match in 10 days, and his win over Cilic was so late he afterwards admitted he had only got to bed at 3am. But take nothing away from the Uruguayan, who will next play either fellow one-hander Thiem or lucky-loser Coric. Either way, one of these men will become a first-time Masters finalist.

It would be hard to beat that match for drama and emotion, but Nadal, taking on No9 seed David Goffin for only the second time, would manage to do so, albeit in two sets. The high quality was relentless from both men throughout, and not surprisingly it was played out to a raucous soundtrack from a packed home crowd. Nadal hereabouts is as famous and popular as they come, and it showed from the outset.

Nadal threatened to break in the fourth game, going 0-40, but the constantly improving Goffin, one of the nimblest and cleanest-hitting men on the tour, did not waver. He would fight off four break chances here and another two in the sixth game, and even had the chance of his own break along the way.

Both were striking their very contrasting forehands with depth and pace, Goffin flat and low, Nadal lunging and rearing. Each served out their games with forehand winners to reach 5-4, and Goffin—again under formidable pressure from a strutting Nadal, produced two more searing winners and a bold smash for 5-5.

It seemed entirely right that this should go to a tie-break after over an hour of intense, gripping tennis. It seemed inevitable, however, that Nadal, roared on at every point, should gradually get the edge, 4-2, courtesy of an over-hit lob from Goffin. Nadal found the line twice with forehands, and Goffin double faulted to concede the set, 7-6(3).

Here, then, was Nadal’s chance to relax and enjoy the ride. Goffin was playing some fine tennis, but the Spaniard’s rising arc of form and confidence through this year—not just on clay but also on the hard courts of Australia and North America—unleashed his best.

He defended to the extremes of the court, finding passes through impossible gaps, and made drops, big serves and forehands to die for. The first break came in the third game, and although Goffin had four break points in the fourth game, he was thwarted at every turn by Nadal.

The Spaniard had to work hard again to hold for 4-2, but once again penetrated the defences of Goffin to break for 5-2, and he served out the win, 6-2.

Nadal is, then, undefeated in 13 clay matches, and has a tour-leading 32 match-wins for the year. He is also still on target to achieve one ground-breaking record on clay: a sweep of all three Masters, Barcelona and the French Open.

There is, of course, a lot of water to pass under the bridge in Madrid, not least a 50th meeting with Djokovic, a man who leads Nadal 26-23 and has won their last seven matches and their last three on clay.

But judging from his performance here—a gutsy three-setter over on-fire Fabio Fognini, and sweep past under-par Nick Kyrgios, and this quality win over the best that Goffin has to offer—Nadal will have high hopes of reversing that recent run.

As for Goffin, he has established himself as a prime contender himself in Rome and Roland Garros: This is his second quarter-final Masters run on clay this year, and in the last, he went on to the semis. On both occasions, it was Nadal who stopped him.

He will, eventually, be satisfied with the compliment paid him by Nadal:

“It was a very tough match that I had to play at the highest level to be able to make the semi-finals. It’s one of the matches that you go back home with a lot of adrenaline and satisfied for the work done.”

However, on this day of firsts, it seems appropriate to give the last word to Cuevas:

“I’m not seeing it as the last opportunity [to reach a Masters final]. It’s my first opportunity, but I don’t see it as the last opportunity.

“No matter who I have on the other side of the court, I’m going to try to go out there, to give 100 percent, and make it to the final.”

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