There are times when you are watching a tennis match, and after a period, you just stop passing comments, and succumb to its excitement. You do not have anything left to say, because, even as a spectator, you are emotionally drained by the quality, excitement and drama of the match.
On one hand, you desperately want the underdog to win so there is a change at the peak, but at that very moment, the top dog comes with something so phenomenal that you cannot help but admit that the latter deserves to edge through.
On the other hand, you want the contest to get over, so that your heart can take some rest from the excessive pounding it has endured during the match, while at the same time, you do not want it to finish because the quality of tennis cannot, possibly, reach better heights.
Ultimately, you are in a very confused state of mind and just wait for the inevitable to happen. Once it happens, though, you feel every moment of your time or money worth spent, and happily savor the memory of something special that you had the fortune to witness.
This was precisely my state of mind as Rafael Nadal edged through Novak Djokovic, 3-6 7-6(5) 7-6(9), in the longest three set match in a Tennis Masters Series history, at the Semi Finals of the Madrid Masters 2009.
The Serbian did everything that a human could possibly conjure up to try and dismantle Nadal's supremacy at this surface. He took the bull by the horns by giving Nadal a dose of his own medicine, and breaking him right away to race up to a 3-0 lead.
Nadal, who was out of sorts with his forehand, has never looked under more pressure, and in a state of panic, than in the opening set of the game.
Djokovic pushed Nadal back off the baseline, and for most of the first set Nadal retorted to his old style of play by looping in high shots towards Djokovic’s backhand from six feet behind the baseline.
Djokovic, surprisingly, obliged by beating Nadal in his own game. He attacked, he defended superbly, played drop shots and volleys which would even make Stefan Edberg proud.
There was a deafening silence among the twelve thousand spectators, as Djokovic prevailed by taking the first set 6-3. An upset looked very much on the cards.
Nadal rejuvenated and again looked like the Rafa that we know. Both players served immaculately and the first few games went like a breeze as they held serve comfortably.
The pressure was surely mounting on both players as Nadal took a short medical timeout after the fourth game, although no damage was done. Djokovic, meanwhile, was matching Nadal-of-the-old in defense and the semi-finalists were battling through some breath taking rallies.
The definition of the word athleticism was assuming a different meaning altogether.
Nole used his improved defensive skills to good measure and Nadal found himself in a scary position at a set and 15-40 down. It was then, it seemed that Pete Bodo’s comparison of Nadal with Pete Sampras proportioned its full meaning.
Nadal fired down an ace and service winner to get back to deuce, saved two more break points with precise serving and survived the toughest service game of the set to lead 5-4.
Both battled for three more tough service games to get to the tie-breaker at 6-6.
Even though Djokovic survived those close sets, his body language was starting to deter. Nadal took full advantage of it and breezed through the tie-breaker to level the match at one set all!
The third set became a matter of will, rather than skill, as we witnessed the BEST tennis of the match—and possibly the year—with every possible strategy being worked out. Winners were struck out of nowhere and inhuman passes were made which fondly reminded of the epic five hour match at Melbourne.
The set also showed that the Novak Djokovic of May ‘09 is a much fitter and mentally stronger player than the Djokovic of Jan ’09.
Djokovic suffered from cramps right after breaking Nadal to get to 3-1, and took a full medical timeout during the process.
He played the rest of the match in pain, and got broken immediately after, but showed resolve of steel—being attended by the physio after during every changeover—to fight point to point against the Spaniard, and still managed to hold many break points in between.
Both players held serve to go on to 6-6, and produced one of the best tie-breakers of all times in the deciding set of the semi-final. There was never a relaxing moment during the tie-break, and each point looked like an uphill journey.
Each held match points, trading several mini-breaks, and ultimately Nadal got that additional mini-break of Djokovic’s serve at 9-9 with an outwordly passing shot that even he would be proud of!
He closed out the match on his serve, and fell to the ground as the LONGEST match in a Masters Series ended at 4:02 hours.
Twelve thousand Spaniards rose to give Novak Djokovic a deafening, and well deserved, applause as he, visibly heartbroken, guided himself to the dressing room.
Much can be said about Djokovic’s inability to convert break points (he could convert only two out of eight opportunities), or his visible fatigue due to injury in the decider, but it was evident that he was the better player for most of the match.
He was ahead of Nadal in all the statistics (even broke Nadal more) producing more winners, lesser unforced errors, higher number of breaks, and total number of points won.
But it was Nadal who prevailed during the most important points of the match and proved just how difficult it is to beat him on any surface, leave alone clay.
My salute to Nadal and Djokovic. Too bad there was only one person walking out as the winner.
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