Rafael Nadal solidified his position as the hot favourite for a 10th Roland Garros crown by claiming a comprehensive 6-2, 6-4 win over Novak Djokovic in the Madrid Open semi-finals on Saturday – which marked the 50th showdown between the two stars.
The fourth-seeded Spaniard notched his first success over Djokovic in almost three years by wrapping up an impressive victory in one hour and 38 minutes, dropping serve just once (from two break points faced throughout the match) and winning 78 per cent of the points on his first serve.
Nadal-Djokovic is the first men’s rivalry in the Open Era to reach 50 matches, and there was a marquee audience in attendance at the Caja Magica to witness the historic moment with Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo, and Spain legend Raul Gonzalez both in the stands.
Nadal had lost his last seven consecutive matches to Djokovic, and hadn’t taken a set off of him since the 2014 French Open final. But he entered the clash carrying a 13-match winning streak that has included title runs in Monte Carlo and Barcelona last month.
“I think I played a really good first set. The second set I was a little bit more nervous. I played a little bit shorter. I think then the match was a little bit more even,” said Nadal after his win on Saturday.
“Finally I managed to win it. It’s a very important victory. It gives me the possibility to play another final and to continue in a positive line.”
Asked why he got nervous, Nadal said: “I got nervous because it was an important match for me. I lost a lot of times in a row (to him). To break that thing is always… There is always nerves. I am humble enough to come here and say that I was nervous, no? Especially with that 40-15, then break point for him, that was a very hard moment for me.
“But I accept that situation, try to keep fighting for the next point. That’s it. I think is a great result. To win against Novak with that score, you should be playing very well. If not, it’s impossible.”
The first point of the match set the tone for the battle that was to transpire. Djokovic stepped in the court with some aggressive shots but Nadal’s defensive skills allowed him to turn the tables on the Serb and draw the error.
Djokovic went down 0-40 moments later and Nadal got the early break with a return winner. He was pushed to deuce but consolidated for a 2-0 lead.
Nadal claimed a second break on his way to a 4-0 advantage before Djokovic finally got on the board.
Djokovic saved a set point on his own serve and hung on to hold for 2-5, forcing Nadal to serve out the set.
And the Spaniard did not falter, feathering a drop shot to take a one-set lead in 40 minutes.
Nadal again got the early break to lead 2-0 but then faced his first break point of the match two games later. Djokovic upped the pressure, pushing Nadal behind the baseline and drawing the defensive error to break back. An animated fist pump followed from the Serb, who drew level for 2-2.
Djokovic’s relief was brief as Nadal immediately broke again and consolidated for 4-2.
Nadal squandered two match points and hit an error to face a break point in game 10. The Mallorcan saved it though with a brilliant drop shot and got his hands on a third opportunity to close out the contest with a good serve down the T. And third time was indeed the charm as he finally claimed his first win over Djokovic since 2014.
Nadal awaits the winner of the second semi-final between eighth-seeded Dominic Thiem of Austria and Uruguayan Pablo Cuevas.
“Rafa was obviously a better player today. He deserved to win. I mean, he was controlling the game from beginning to the end,” said Djokovic after the match.
“All in all, I did try my best. It wasn’t a very high quality of tennis from my side. I mean, I made a lot of unforced errors, especially first set. Just his quality was very high. He managed to do whatever he wanted really, especially in the first set.”
Djokovic has fallen to a 16-5 win-loss record for the season and remains title-less since the opening week of the year in Doha.
This was just his second semi-final in six tournaments contested in 2017. Djokovic insists he walks away from Madrid with more positives than negatives.
“First of all, it was really good to play in semi-finals of big event, and to play against one of the top rivals I have in my life. I haven’t had that feeling in months, so it’s great to feel that,” said the 12-time Grand Slam champion.
“It was a positive week, a positive experience. I take, as I say, more positives than negatives into the next week in Rome. As I go along, I hope to continue getting better and getting stronger. I felt like I was playing well throughout the week. Today maybe slightly I could have played better. But, again, I just had an opponent that was too good.”