Madrid Masters

Madrid Masters: Rafael Nadal wins 50th meeting with arch-rival Djokovic – exactly one year on

Home favourite Rafael Nadal beats Novak Djokovic 6-2 6-4 in the pair's 50th meeting to reach the Madrid Masters final

rafael nadal
Rafael Nadal is through to the final in Madrid Photo: Marianne Bevis

This semi-final was a record-breaker before it even began.

Two of the best players ever to lift a tennis racket, 14-time Major champion Rafael Nadal and 12-time Major champion Novak Djokovic were about to play each other for the 50th time, a record rivalry in the Open era.

That the two men were among the four most prolific Major champions, both with career Grand Slams, and both with repeated stretches as world No1 only added to their status in tennis’s record books: Djokovic had a tally of 223 weeks at the top, Nadal 141 weeks.

They also topped the table in Masters titles, Djokovic with 30 and Nadal with 29, and their achievements were finely balanced: Djokovic had won an Open era record of 22 hard court Masters titles among a tally of 50; Nadal was the master when it came to clay with 20 Masters on the red stuff among a tally of 51. And this 50th meeting was, of course, to be played both on clay and in front of an adoring Spanish Caja Magica.

But that was to misrepresent where these two stood in their more recent history. Djokovic led the head-to-head 26-23 and the Serb was on a seven-match winning streak, indeed an 11-12 run, against Nadal, and what’s more, he had won their last three on clay.

Remarkably for such a significant match, it was exactly a year since their last meeting, on 13 May 2016, a 6-5, 7-6 win to the Serb. Never had they taken so long for a rematch, but then it had been at Roland Garros last year that their paths took such contrasting directions.

Djokovic had gone on to win a first emotional but exhausting French Open, and the effort of doing so, and of maintaining his No1 ranking for over two years, took its toll. He was overtaken by Andy Murray at the World Tour Finals, and since winning Doha at the start of this year, had suffered early losses and an elbow injury, and his disrupted season was compounded ahead of Madrid with the announcement of a parting of the ways with his long-term coaching team.

Nadal had been forced to withdraw in Paris with a wrist injury that decimated the rest of his season and saw him drop to No9 in the rankings at the end of the year. His resurgence in 2017, though, was one of the stories of the season so far: Finals at the Australian Open, Miami and Acapulco, plus his 10th title in Monte-Carlo and 10th in Barcelona.

No surprise, then, that during Madrid this year, Nadal had his old strut back. He survived a severe opening test by an on-fire Fabio Fognini, sailed past No16 seed Nick Kyrgios, and produced his best clay-court form to hold off No9 seed David Goffin.

The Spaniard now had a tour-leading 32 match-wins, and everything was falling into place on this Saturday afternoon: the rain of the week had gone, the sun shone, the arena was packed and in fine voice. Cheers erupted at every point won by Nadal, and sighs accompanied his few errors: But they certainly had plenty to cheer.

Indeed, even with Djokovic opening serve, Nadal won the first four points for an immediate break, helped by a couple of uncharacteristic errors from the Serb. The Caja Magica erupted, then sighed when Nadal netted an easy overhead, but was soon on its feet again when he served big to hold, 2-0.

The wayward form of Djokovic continued in the third game, two more errors, and an off-forehand winner from Nadal, and it was another break, and if that had thrilled the Spanish fans, a love hold, made with a smash and a forehand winner, had them in a state of euphoria.

At last Djokovic got on the board, though he was pulled back from 40-0 to deuce, and made a small inroad into the Nadal serve to 30, but again the Spaniard reasserted his dominance, pounding from behind the baseline to both wings, and closing with a near ace, 5-1.

More of the same—two deuces, a break point, a double fault—came from Djokovic, who seemed to have no answers to his rival. Indeed he looked a little flat, but he did hold. Nadal, however, had the set after 40 minutes, courtesy of a fan-pleasing drop-shot winner, 6-2.

Was Djokovic, though, starting to find his rhythm and focus? The first game of the second set suggested not: two dire misses and it was break point, and a netted forehand finished it off. Meanwhile, Nadal was bursting with energy, running everything down and seeming to read the Djokovic game with ease. He leapt for a high back-hand volley and led 2-0.

However finally Djokovic found a groove with his serve, held to love, and then swung a couple of fine backhand down-the-line shots and a return-of-serve winner for deuce against Nadal. Two cross-court backhands and he had the break back, 2-2.

That surely would flood Djokovic with self-belief, except a double fault suggested otherwise. Nadal pulled off a running forehand winner, and Djokovic hit wide to concede the break again. A love hold and the Spaniard was 5-3 up, but then came a game that, in microcosm, was precisely what tennis fans and experts alike had anticipated.

They probed and passed each other, and at the last gasp, Djokovic worked a break point as Nadal, clearly tight for the first time this match, netted a forehand.

But the home hero reverted to his impregnable best through a long rally, finishing with a pitch-perfect drop shot. A winning serve and one last error from Djokovic, and Nadal jumped and pumped with joy.

This was significant not only because it took Nadal to his sixth final of the year, nor that it was in front of his home crowd, but because he had turned around a long stretch of defeats to one of his biggest rivals—as big a confidence boost as he could want.

In truth, this was far from Djokovic’s best. In recent years, against such opponents, it has been rare to see the Serb make 24 errors in the space of 18 games. He was afterwards, unsurprisingly, subdued:

“Well, Rafa was obviously a better player today. He deserved to win. I mean, he was controlling the game from beginning to the end.

“All in all, I did try my best. It wasn’t a very high quality of tennis from my side. I made a lot of unforced errors, especially the first set… Today was warmer than last three, four days, so conditions were quite different, [and] he managed to be better in these kinds of conditions.”

Then asked outright if he now thought Nadal was the favourite to win the French Open, he wasted little breathe:

“Yes, yes, he is.”

It is hard to disagree—and it would his 10th there too. What’s more, he has already overtaken that other great rival, Roger Federer, in the Race to London, and with a win tomorrow, he will re-enter the top four, too.

First, though, Nadal will be entirely focused on Madrid, but he will certainly be the favourite against either No8 Dominic Thiem or the unseeded Pablo Cuevas—though each has claimed a clay win over Nadal in the past.

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