Simona Halep successfully defended her Madrid Open title with a hard-fought victory over Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic at the Caja Magica on Saturday.
The Romanian No3 seed, who is the first player to feature in three finals in the Spanish capital, is just the second woman to claim the trophy in consecutive seasons (Serena Williams won it in 2012-13).
It is Halep’s first title triumph since her victory in Montreal last July and it has taken her back into the top four of the world rankings and from No29 to No8 in the Road to Singapore standings.
Mladenovic entered the contest with a 3-1 head-to-head record lead over Halep, and having reached the final in Stuttgart two weeks earlier.
The Frenchwoman, who will rise to No14 in the world when the new rankings are released on Monday, turns 24 today, and could not celebrate her birthday with a second trophy win of the season.
Mladenovic served for the opening set at 5-4 but Halep, who had pulled off a similar Houdini act against Roberta Vinci earlier in the tournament, broke back and took three consecutive games to take a one-set lead.
The Romanian went up an early break in the second but Mladenovic pegged her back and eventually ran away with the set in the tiebreak. Halep got back on track in the decider, opening up a 5-2 lead and closed out the match comfortably to grab her 15th career title.
Mladenovic had tweaked her back during her semi-final against Svetlana Kuznetsova and was asked if it hampered her performance against Halep in the final.
“I think that was an amazing final. I don’t really want to talk about my lower back. Obviously I tried not to show anything. You guys are seeing pretty much everything, I guess,” said Mladenovic.
“Of course, it happened yesterday. I had some tensions, some pain here and there. I was trying not to show anything, not to think about it. I tried to fight over it, continue to enjoy and fight till the end, give everything I had. Honestly, we had an amazing final, and I don’t want to put any comments on my lower back saying that was the reason why I couldn’t make it till the end and win that match.”
The final lasted two hours and 44 minutes, with both players pushing each other to their limits at times.
“Of course, it’s difficult for me right now to end up this amazing week as a finalist. But sometimes it’s also the beauty of the sport. There has to be a winner and a finalist,” said Mladenovic.
“I can just be proud out there from both of us what we showed. I think it was a great final. Great spirit, attitude, great game. Got to give credit to Simona for an amazing game today. Yeah, just head up and only take the positives.”
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.”
Rafael Nadal will aim to keep his unbeaten start to the clay season going when he meets Novak Djokovic for a 50th time in the Madrid Masters semi-finals on Saturday.
Nadal is now 13-0 on clay this year as he swept aside Belgian ninth seed David Goffin 7-6 (7/3), 6-2 much to the delight a boisterous home crowd under the roof on the Manolo Santana centre court.
Djokovic had an even easier day as he moved into the last four on Friday without hitting a ball as Kei Nishikori withdrew with a wrist injury.
And the Serb has a marginal 26-23 head-to-head record against Nadal.
Nadal eased past Goffin in their only previous meeting on his way to winning the Monte Carlo Masters 6-3, 6-1 last month before also lifting a 10th Barcelona Open.
And only a poor return on his break point opportunities denied Nadal just as convincing a scoreline as the Spaniard took only two of his 13 chances.
The 14-time Grand Slam champion had break points in the fourth and sixth game of the first set, but had to settle for breaking Goffin’s resolve in a tie-break.
Nadal finally broke in the third game of the second set before having to stave off four break points on his own serve to consolidate his lead at 3-1.
The level of play from both players rose in a remarkable game with Goffin serving 2-4 down as he kept Nadal at bay for four break points, including one incredible cross-court backhand as he ran back to the baseline after being lobbed.
Episode 50 of Djokovic vs Nadal tomorrow. Nadal bidding for his first win against Djokovic since 2014 Roland Garros final (lost 7 in a row).— Stuart Fraser (@stu_fraser) May 12, 2017
Nadal wasn’t to be denied, though, as he broke once more and served out to seal victory after exactly two hours on court.
On the other side of the draw Uruguayan Pablo Cuevas advanced to his first ever Masters series semi-final by outlasting German wonder kid Alexander Zverev 3-6, 6-0, 6-4.
Zverev had been on a seven-match victory streak after winning his second title of the season in Munich last week.
However, after a bright start from the 20-year-old, tiredness kicked in as Cuevas, backed by a fervent support including Atletico Madrid duo Diego Godin and Antoine Griezmann, roared back to win the second set 6-0.
And Cuevas landed the only break in the final game of the deciding set when Zverev fired wide to set up a semi-final against Dominic Thiem or Andy Murray’s conqueror Borna Coric.
In the Women’s Madrid Open, defending champion Simona Halep cruised back into the final for the third time in four years with a 6-2, 6-3 success over Latvia’s Anastasija Sevastova.
Halep also thrashed the world number 22 two weeks ago in Stuttgart and there was never any danger of an upset as the Romanian reeled off five straight games to close out the opening set.
Sevastova hinted at a fightback early in the second as she got out to a 3-0 lead.
But Halep, who is also into the semi-finals of the women’s doubles with compatriot Irina-Camelia Begu, showed no signs of lacking in energy as she bounced back in emphatic fashion to win the last six games for the loss of just 14 points.
Halep will face in-form Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic or Svetlana Kuznetsova in Saturday’s final.