Rafael Nadal is two sets away from breaking John McEnroe’s record of consecutive sets won on a single surface after the world No. 1 claimed his 48th set in a row on clay with a 6-3, 6-1 rout of Gael Monfils on Wednesday.
McEnroe’s mark of 49 consecutive sets won on carpet came in 1984 and Nadal can match or break that record when he takes on Diego Schwartzman in the Madrid Open third round on Thursday.
Nadal was nearly flawless against Monfils, dismissing the Frenchman, who returned from a back injury just last week, in 73 minutes.
The defending champion had to save three break points early in the first set but then never looked back, claiming a 20th straight victory on clay in the process.
Nadal seems to be laser-focused this clay season, winning 11th titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona before coming to Madrid. But for those wondering if he has an eye on McEnroe’s record, the Spaniard was clear in his thoughts about that.
“You find a new stat. I’m lost. Each time is a less important stat,” Nadal said in Spanish to a local reporter when quizzed about the prospect of breaking McEnroe’s mark.
“Look, if it was important, I had no idea about that stat. I am not saying that it’s not important, but what is important is I made it to the third round of this tournament. I’ve played a really good match. I beat an opponent who is difficult.
“The feelings are very good. This is what matters and what motivates me and gives me joy: the feeling to be able to play another day in front of the crowd here in Madrid.”
Nadal spent more than two months sidelined with a psoas injury before coming back early April to lead Spain in their Davis Cup quarter-final against Germany. He hasn’t lost a match since his return, sweeping all 13 he has contested so far.
Asked if there was something he feels he has specifically improved since his return from injury, or what he is most proud of during that period, the Mallorcan said: “I can’t improve a lot because I didn’t practice. That’s the real thing, no? I have been injured, and I didn’t have the chance to prepare my game a lot.
“What I am more proud, of course I did a lot of things well since I came back. I play with the right intensity, the right focus all the time. My backhand is working great. The forehand working well, too, as always, more or less. But the backhand is a shot that is working well.
“What I am most pleased with is I am recovered from my injury on the psoas. That makes me feel strong and to go on court with confidence that I can hold tough matches. That’s important for me especially on this surface.”
Karolina Pliskova is trying not to focus too much on her current eight-match winning streak but admits the fact that it has come on clay makes it special, particularly now as she prepares to take on Simona Halep in the Madrid quarter-finals on Thursday.
Halep has won her last 15 matches at the Caja Magica – the latest being a 6-1, 6-4 triumph over the other Pliskova twin, Kristyna.
Karolina Pliskova, who has improved a lot on clay over the past 12 months and made the 2017 Roland Garros semi-finals, before falling to Halep, trails the Romanian 1-6 head-to-head.
It is a match-up the tall Czech struggles with, but she can take confidence from how well she played against Halep in that French Open semi-final, stretching her to three sets before surrendering.
Pliskova, who won the Stuttgart title less than two weeks ago, had never made it past the second round in Madrid prior to this week and she’s now in the quarter-finals thanks to a 6-2, 6-3 victory over reigning US Open champion Sloane Stephens.
— WTA (@WTA) May 9, 2018
“I try not to look back. So for me, like Stuttgart is over, but it’s good if I remember that we are on clay, so I didn’t lose any match on clay, except the one match against Julia (Goerges) in Fed Cup,” said Pliskova, when asked about her winning streak.
“So it feels good, for confidence for sure, it’s good to know I have like eight matches won on clay. Not only for this tournament, but for the next two tournaments coming up, Paris and Rome, it’s for sure good to know that I have couple of matches, tough matches, easy matches, everything possible now I have under my belt.”
Stephens entered the match with a 3-0 winning record against top-10 opposition in 2018 and she was actually the first to break serve on Wednesday.
But Pliskova won 20 of the following 22 points to retaliate, running away with the next five games to grab the opening set.
The Czech world No. 6 did not slow down in the second set, racing to a 4-1 lead and wrapped up the victory in 63 minutes.
Having already navigated a tough draw that saw her overcome Elena Vesnina, Victoria Azarenka and now Stephens, Pliskova is now ready for another huge test against Halep.
“There is not much to talk about because we know everything, you and I,” Pliskova said with a laugh. “On clay I played one of my best matches last year (in Paris). I lost but it was a very good match I think, I felt good, so there is no reason – now I have nothing to lose. My draw is very sh**** because having those three players in a row, you can have them in finals or semis but first, second, third round, and now Simona that’s the last point on the cake.
“But I have to somehow fight with it. I know she likes this tournament after being two times champion and now back in the quarters. I have to maybe try something different a little bit than I was playing the last couple of matches against her.”
Pliskova believes re-watching that French Open showdown from last year could be useful.
“I go sometimes back to this match because I felt well there so it’s a good match to see. I was not overpowering the shots, I was playing rallies, a little bit similar to today, playing rallies but in a kind of aggressive way. And waiting for some shorter ball and then I’ll attack,” said the 26-year-old.
“This is how I want to play but maybe it’s not going to be enough so then I have to push more a little bit.”
Novak Djokovic insists his passion for the sport will continue to give him strength as he looks to rebound from his latest setback – a three-set defeat to Great Britain’s Kyle Edmund in the Madrid second round on Wednesday.
Djokovic, who is yet to reach a quarter-final at any tournament so far this season, had three opportunities to break Edmund at 2-all in the deciding set but the 23-year-old relied on his big serve to get out of trouble and rushed towards victory. Edmund’s reward is a place in the third round of a Masters 1000 event for the first time in his career.
Djokovic walked off court straight to his post-match press conference, which went as fast as that third set against Edmund.
The ex-world No. 1 is 6-6 win-loss this season, but more telling is that he is 0-4 in deciding sets in 2018.
“There are obvious things that are not working well for me. But I have to keep working on them and pray that – and hope that my game will get stronger, get better as definitely as the matches go the distance,” conceded Djokovic.
“Especially at such big tournaments against quality players, you’ve got to, you know, step in. I tried but obviously, yeah, wasn’t to be today. Hopefully, next one.”
The pair exchanged breaks early in the opening set, with Edmund the first to draw blood. Djokovic drew level but was broken again and the Brit quickly ran away with the set.
Djokovic was ready to pounce though early in the second and opened up a 2-0 lead. He had opportunities to extend his advantage in game seven and went up a double-break by exploiting the Edmund backhand.
After forcing a decider, Djokovic had triple-break point on the Edmund serve midway through the third set but Edmund found his serve when he needed it the most, then broke for 5-3. He served out the win, at love, to book a place in the last-16, where he faces Belgium’s David Goffin.
Djokovic has reunited with his former coach Marian Vajda, as well as fitness trainer Gebhard Phil-Gritsch in efforts to bring his game back to scratch. He understands it’s going to be a long process, and that staying positive will be key.
“It’s not the end of the world. Obviously, I’ve played this sport so many years and had a bunch of success. I try to always remind myself and be grateful for that,” said the 12-time Grand Slam champion.
“At the same time, nobody is forcing me to play this sport. I do it because I like it. I want to do it. And that’s something also that makes me fortunate to play the sport.
“So that’s where I draw my strength. And as long as I keep going, as long as I love the sport, I’ll keep going. And that’s all it is.”
The Serb, who turns 31 in two weeks’ time, felt unlucky on some crucial points in the decider, and paid tribute to Edmund who is having a statement season, having reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open in January, and will now break the top-20 for the first time.
“Kyle was just better in the decisive moments, and I was a bit unlucky. 4-3, couple bad bounces, the lines that he hit, and the game is gone. Next game is new balls, and he is hitting all four first serves in. The match is gone, you know. And I was pretty close but, yeah, that’s tennis,” explained Djokovic.
“He has improved, obviously, his backhand. His forehand is obviously his weapon and he has been using it very well, backing up the serve with that forehand. Backhand, he has improved his backhand, down the line. Couple important points he won with that shot today.
“Obviously new coach (Fredrik Rosengren) and someone I’ve known for many years. He worked with (Mario) Ancic. He is a very good coach. Definitely Kyle is playing the best tennis of his life.”
Djokovic believes the margins were slim and concludes that “luck was on his side a little bit. But, also, he was courageous enough to attack the balls when it mattered, and he deserved to win.”
Rafael Nadal was due next on Estadio Manolo Santana and saw parts of Djokovic’s match. He also agrees that only a handful of points decided the winner.
“I think he’s going step by step to be able to recover and be at the category he deserves. I don’t have any doubt that he’s going to be back up at the highest level,” Nadal said of Djokovic.
Edmund, who was runner-up on clay in Marrakech last month, is happy with his progress after defeating a third top-12 player this season, which he started ranked 50 in the world.
“Pleased with the way my game’s developing, that I’m able to beat a player like that. So does me the world of good in lots of ways: confidence, belief. It’s just a really good win for me,” said Edmund.