The Magic Box has delivered up some very difficult conditions in Madrid's inaugural tournament, but all that was forgotten on a glorious semi-final day.
The sun shone, the wind dropped and the arena was bursting to its 12,500 capacity. All was set fair as some of tennis' finest players served up a corker.
First up were Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, the former hot in acid yellow and white, the latter cool in arctic blue and white. Nadal has the classic Spanish glow of chestnut skin, Djokovic the paler complexion and black hair of eastern Europe.
The ebullient crowd had already had to adjust to the absence of the world No. 3 in the day’s schedule and quickly had another adjustment to make. Home hero Nadal found himself on the receiving end of a blistering Djokovic performance.
The world No. 4 burst out of the blocks as though raised on clay, firing huge drives all round the court with such weight and depth that Nadal was completely non-plussed. Djokovic is, in many commentators eyes, the form player of the week, and on the evidence of the first three games—where he left Nadal standing—it was clear why.
Nadal seemed uncharacteristically preoccupied with the court and his inability to keep his footing. Shockingly, he delivered up a break in his first service game with a double fault. He went on to suffer 16 unforced errors in the first set, although those stats, in reality, take something away from Djokovic’s performance.
As the first set developed, the ground strokes from both rackets settled into longer rallies, both testing the other with powerful hitting, but it was Djokovic who used his intelligent tactical brain to punish Nadal with penetrating shots wide to both wings, throwing in the killer volley from time to time for good measure.
Nadal responded by stepping closer the baseline and attacking, but it was Djokovic who took the first set in real style, with sensational angled drives, top-notch cross court volleys, and first-rate serving.
The second set was altogether more tense, and more tightly fought.
Nadal, with the mind-set and self-belief of a lion in possession of the biggest pride on the plains, asserted his authority in his service games, but Djokovic maintained his composure despite some discontent with the dampness of the newly-watered court.
Indeed he appeared to use the slippery conditions to impose himself—with stunning drop shots and lobs—on Nadal. It really was superb tennis.
The physical toll showed first on Nadal who, early in the second set, had the trainer called to work on his right knee and thigh. With heavy strapping in place, he returned to the fray.
It raised, at least for a while, the fear that the hard, unstable surface would affect the outcome of this match. At 5-4, he again sought treatment, but this set had a long way to go yet.
If Djokovic expected any weakness from Nadal, he was sorely disabused as the set pounded its stunning way to a tie break. Injury put to one side, there seemed little doubt that Nadal, on a rising curve of quality and passion, would win it, and he did.
After a second set of over an hour and a half, it would not be surprising for the standard to fall in the deciding third. Nothing could be further from truth. The play soared to a yet higher level, with no quarter given by either player.
Djokovic broke Nadal’s serve in the early stages, only to be immediately broken back. He, too, then sought treatment to his thigh in what looked to be an identical problem to Nadal’s.
The set stretched, via sublime tennis, to a tie-break that not even the most confident clairvoyant could have called. It deserves recording in point-by-point detail.
First serve, and first blood, went to Djokovic. Nadal then won his two service points, and appeared to have the wind in his sails. Djokovic reciprocated with excellent serving.
Nadal looks ragged, with hair slipping from beneath his bandana. His obsessive rituals became slower and more precise than ever at the numerous change of ends.
At last, a long, long rally delivered a point against serve to Djokoic. But then the favour was returned and the tie-break continued with serve. Spanish heads were buried in hands as the crowd, in unison, appeared to stop breathing.
Nadal then conceded a service point that handed Djokovic a match point on his serve.
What followed was the most intense rally of the match (until half a dozen more followed). No player gave a quarter, and hit harder then ever, to greater depth and width than seemed possible. But with a roar, Nadal won the point back to level at 6-6.
There followed another epic rally, this time won by Djokovic. Yet another stunning rally brought Nadal back to 7-7. Panting with effort, he served and was rewarded with his first match point of the tie break.
The crowd chanted support, only to see Djokovic save it audaciously with a stunning drop shot followed by a devastating passing shot. With a big serve, he earned another match point of his own. He hit his drive a fraction long, and they changed ends again, all square a 9-9, the crowd in a frenzy.
Nadal won his first service point with a perfect drive down the line. And after more than four hours (the longest three-set Master’s match ever) he finally out-drove Djokovic to take the win. He collapsed onto the court, and the crowd erupted. They had seen their Spanish hero move up a notch to near-godlike stature.
A word about Djokovic is necessary. Make no mistake this was as close to a win as anyone could expect to come. Without the crowd buoying up the Spaniard, he may have got the better of Nadal.
He seems to have grown in confidence and stature with each passing month. His fitness has unquestionably improved—yet he seems to have shed a little of the grindingly slow pattern between points that characterises Nadal.
He also seems to have listened to critics, and responded in all departments. His shot-making is rangy, flexible and nimble. Adding endurance and commitment to that equation has built a truly formidable tennis player.
He will, initially, be bitterly disappointed to have lost this one after playing so well, but with hindsight he should take a lot of positive energy and belief from the match. He has certainly laid down his marker for Roland Garros.
An exhausted crowd then adjusted to a match of a completely different character: The Roger Federer and Juan Martin Del Potro matchup.
Federer, co-ordinated with the silver blue of the Magic Box itself, has the proportions of a dancer and the stillness of a mill-pool. Del Potro, remarkably tall and with little natural elegance, also wore the mellow tones of the Madrid arena. His height belies his speed, and his game is one of the fastest-improving on the tour. Andy Murray can attest to that.
As a result, Federer looked close to dropping his opening serve, just as he had done against Andy Roddick the evening before. His tennis brain then appeared to kick in and he deployed drop-shot after drop-shot to test the Argentian’s movement. He dispatched the returning balls with crisp angled volleys to retrieve the game with efficient ease.
Federer deployed the drop-shot many times during the course of this match, even at one point using it to score an outright winner off a return of serve.
Both players then seemed to feed off each other’s pace, firing flat angled drives from sideline to baseline to sideline. What del Potro lacks in mobility he more than makes up for in power and application and, for a mere 20 years of age, he has started to show mature tactical awareness.
As in previous matches, Federer made a number of forehand errors, though the backhand performed well—a rejuvenated feature of his game.
The variety of shots he has at his disposal then all gradually came into play, including swing volleys and smashes, slices and top-spins, defensive drives turned into attack, and wrong-footing power plays. Another good sign was the improvement in his first serve percentage to 65 percent—the best it’s been all week.
His break-through came in the eighth game when the Federer's gifts were deployed in perfect combination. He gained the break and proceeded to serve out for the set in efficient order.
The Federer attack continued into the second set where he threatened to break at 1-1, but del Potro fought back to hold.
The rallies, compared with the earlier match, were short and packed with variety from both men: del Potro trying a whole range of tactics, Federer responding with a variety of touch, spin and angle that kept his opponent constantly at bay.
It became just too tough for del Potro to match and he acquiesced with a break of serve at 2-2. The balance of power never really looked like changing, and del Potro ended the match still without a single set against the calm and collected No. 2.
Federer continues to look good—maybe better than at any time since he was sidelined with injury after the Australian Open. Here, he was innovative, unflustered, fast and focused. He must feel, after Nadal’s epic match this afternoon, that he now has a chance finally to break through on clay for his first Masters title in a very long time.
But if he fails to take advantage of opportunities to break, and offers up break chances in return, he will be severely punished by Nadal, regardless of the creativity and aesthetics of his tennis.
Just ask Djokovic, who came so close to a famous victory today.
The final chapter in this Madrid story is entitled: A Bull Called Nadal, A Matador Called Federer, And A Bullring In Madrid