World No2 Nadal faced first-time Masters quarter-finalist Guido Pella, and the Argentine, for all his clay success this year—he won Rio, made the final in Cordoba and semis in Buenos Aires—would have his work cut out.
Nadal had won both their previous matches, was on a 17-match winning streak in Monte-Carlo, had built a 70-4 winning record in the tournament, and dropped only seven games in his first two matches this week. This was his 15th consecutive quarter-final at the tournament, and he had a 47-2 record against fellow left-handers on clay: Pella was left-handed.
And Djokovic, world No1 by a country mile, who passed the 850 match-win mark and 200th clay-court win on his way to the quarter-finals this week, had won all three matches against the fast-rising No10 seed, Daniil Medvedev. But the 23-year-old was, like Pella, into his first Masters quarter-final, his best ever run on clay.
Indeed the Russian had won just a single main-tour match on the red stuff prior to Monte-Carlo, but he had already put out some quality clay opponents, including No6 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas. He was up to 20 match-wins in 2019, the tour leader, but his chances again Djokovic did not look great.
That soon changed, as the tall, confident Russian attempted to outplay Djokovic at his own game, plying the baseline with aggressive driving to the corners, onto the lines, and defending with surprising flexibility. It earned him an immediate break, and he offered up not a single chance to break back in a clean, focused set, 6-3.
Rather as he had against Philipp Kohlschreiber in his opening match, Djokovic looked uncharacteristically error-prone, but he tidied up his game in the second set, deployed his drop shot to great effect, and got an early break. He held his advantage to the set’s end, and served it out, 6-4, to level.
But it was Medvedev who got the break in the third for a 3-1 lead. However, the punishing baseline tennis against the master of his craft was taking a toll. The Russian had, after all, played one more match than the Serb to get this far.
Medvedev took treatment to his thigh, not once but three times at the change of ends, but continued to put Djokovic through his paces. He broke again, 5-1, but this time Djokovic resisted and broke back. It was not enough, and the below-par top seed was broken once more to give Medvedev his 21st win of 2019, and his first over a reigning No1, after a gruelling two hours 20 minutes.
It is a rare day when Djokovic makes 47 unforced errors in a best-of-three match, but that is what happened here. He said of his opponent:
“He doesn’t make many mistakes from the backhand. He hits it very low with depth. A windy day like today, conditions are changing every single game. It’s kind of tough to find the rhythm, and he doesn’t give you much rhythm.
“He improved his movement a lot since last year. He definitely deserves to be where he is.”
And it was about his fitness and movement that the young Russian spoke ahead of the match, and about his hard work away from the courts in the off-season—something, he confessed, he had taken more seriously in the last year.
It has borne fruit: Medvedev has won all four of his titles in the last 15 months, reached his first Major fourth round in Australian in January, and then his first fourth round at a Masters in Miami. Now he has reached his first Masters semi-final, and if he goes on to win the title, will break the top 10.
It so happens that he faces another Serb in the next round. World No48 Dusan Lajovic followed up his win over Dominic Thiem with victory over qualifier Lorenzo Sonego, 6-4, 7-5.
But what of Nadal? Would he resist the charge of the underdog?
Well in the early goings, in a long and hard-fought first set, it looked as though he would suffer the same fate as Djokovic. He sprayed errors, and quickly conceded a break of serve to Pella, but alarm bells did not ring immediately for the mighty Spaniard.
However, eyebrows lifted a little further when he netted a straightforward cross-court return to concede a second break, 1-4. This was not part of the script.
Pella stood firm through three deuces and a break point in the next eight-minute game, but finally conceded one of the breaks back. And Nadal repeated the effort after a convincing hold, this time producing a winner on his cross-court drive: They were all square again, 4-4.
Yet Pella was not done, and come the 11th game, he worked 40-0 against Nadal’s serve, and drew one more error to convert the third break chance, 6-5. But the super-Spaniard is not one to admit defeat before the final point, and he retaliated to create three break chances, and won the last of them: It would be a tie-break.
Come the hour, as so often before, come Nadal, and he stormed through the final game, 7-6(1), in what had been a marathon effort of almost 100 points.
The second set would run a more familiar course, though the 6-3 score belied another bruising battle, with Pella pulling a break back from Nadal during the 66-point set. However, after an identical time span to the Djokovic-Medvedev match, two hours 20 minutes, the most dominant man on clay, the greatest champion Monte-Carlo has ever seen, made it to the semis.
Nadal will now face either Borna Coric or Fabio Fognini.
MORE: The latest football news
MORE: The latest tennis news
BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge