Novak Djokovic digs deep to beat Almagro in Spanish-themed Madrid Masters quarter
Second seed Novak Djokovic beats home favourite Nicolas Almagro in three sets to reach the last 16 of the Madrid Masrters
If the queues snaking from the entrance to the Caja Magica at midday were anything to go by, there was something special going on in the Mutua Madrid Masters on this bright and breezy Wednesday afternoon.
And yes, not only was the defending champion Novak Djokovic about to kick off his campaign at the tournament he has won twice before but the Spanish hero, Rafael Nadal— three titles from six finals since this prestigious tournament switched to clay in 2009—would follow Djokovic onto court.
It was, in short, a schedule to die for, and for those not fortunate enough to have a ticket for the main arena, the second offered a tasty array of tennis tapas too: Former world No3 David Ferrer, and the longest-serving member of the Madrid tournament—all 16 years—Feliciano Lopez.
But while there was disappointment for fans of Ferrer—his opponent Jo-Wilfried Tsonga pulled out just an hour before the match with a shoulder injury—and for Ferrer himself, who was going for his 700th career win, there were high hopes for the main show.
And the opponents that Djokovic and Nadal would face added considerably to the occasion.
The former, playing for the first time since announcing his separation from his coaching team of a decade, played another Spaniard, the single-handed former top-10 Nicolas Almagro, a man whose entire collection of titles and finals, 13 and 10 respectively, had come on clay. Djokovic had won all four previous meetings, but in their last, on Rome’s clay, it had been a close call.
The latter took on the charismatic Italian Fabio Fognini, currently ranked 29 but a former No13, and a man who won three of his five matches against Nadal in 2015, two on clay. However, Nadal had won their last three matches, and was in blistering form this year: Not just his 10th Monte-Carlo Masters title and 10th Barcelona title, but the finals of the Australian Open, Miami Masters and Acapulco—more match-wins than anyone else this year at 29.
First up was Djokovic, and despite a few questions this season over his formidable form of the last few years—since winning Doha at the start of the year he had not made it beyond the quarters anywhere, and missed Miami with an elbow injury—few expected Almagro to cause the Serb too many problems.
But a wayward opening game from Djokovic had the near-full centre court whooping with joy as an aggressive Almagro got a break to 15 in the firsts game. This would be a demanding crowd, even cheering an early Serb double fault, but Djokovic answered calmly with an immediate break back and then a love hold. Indeed the defending champion clicked into gear as Almagro’s lack of court time this season showed in his inconsistent shot-making.
The Spaniard had played only 14 matches this year after taking two months’ paternity leave and also retiring in his first match at the Australian Open. He would not string enough points together to win another game in the set, 6-1, in under half an hour.
But things were about to improve for the home crowd. Almagro fended off deuces in his opening game and earned a break point in the second, but both men were now playing some fine baseline points, probing each other down both wings. Almagro, a temperamental player who can tighten at crucial moments, did not buckle after firing two backhands long to bring up two break points in the sixth game. He faced four more deuces, made a couple of appalling overhead errors, but survived.
Almagro was now living with Djokovic, finding lines and extending the Serb to the extreme margins. A 26-stroke rally went to Djokovic and he held, 4-4, and it looked as though he would strike for home in the ninth game.
Almagro went 15-40 down with an awful smash, but yet again survived with four straight points. Now brimming with confidence and going for his shots, the Spaniard earned two break points and picked up a drop shot from Djokovic to make a winning pass: He had the break and the set, 6-4, and the arena erupted.
Almagro was not done yet, either, and pummelled winners off both wings to get two more break chances: a backhand down the line did the job, 2-0, and he threw in a seventh ace for a love hold.
There was little to choose in winners and errors for both men, Almagro edging ahead on both counts, but now the Spaniard showed his inconsistency under pressure, netting a forehand on break point, and a swift hold from Djokovic made it all square, 3-3.
With two hours on the clock, Almagro found an 11th ace to hold, but Djokovic now answered with a love hold and the pressure was on the Spaniard again. This time, two forehands just long gave the Serb the break he needed, and the champion served it out, 7-5, after two and a quarter hours.
Almagro was, rightly, cheered off the court: It had been a fine battle. But then Djokovic delighted the crowd by singing happy birthday to Manolo Santana, after whom this impressive arena is named.
This had been a fine test, perhaps just what the under-played Djokovic needed as undergoes important transitions off court—as well as dispensing with his coaching team, he is to become a father for the second time later this year.
To reach the quarter-finals, he may have to take on another home favourite in Lopez, who was about play Gilles Simon. To reach the semis, Djokovic may face yet another in Ferrer, before perhaps the ultimate test, the best Spaniard of all, Nadal, in the semis.
No-one said winning big titles would be easy—though Djokovic, until this season, had made it seem unfairly so.