Rafael Nadal entered Friday's quarterfinal match against David Ferrer at the Monte-Carlo Masters as the clear favorite, but it was the unheralded Spaniard who came out on top in convincing and surprising fashion.
The No. 6-seeded Ferrer troubled the world's No. 1 player all match long and used a dominant first-set tie break to propel him to straight-sets triumph, according to BBC Sport:
With the loss, Nadal was denied the Monte-Carlo Masters title for the second consecutive year after winning it eight straight times.
Nadal is unquestionably the best clay-court player in the world, but his countryman isn't too shabby in his own right. Rafa and Ferrer had played each other many times prior to their quarterfinal clash, and Nadal seemingly had a significant advantage, according to Tennis TV:
Despite that, Rafa was cautious and quite cognizant of the battle he would face. Per the Monte-Carlo Masters' official website, Nadal discussed how difficult it is to succeed against Ferrer ahead of their match.
"David is a tough, tough player on any surface," Nadal said. "But here on clay, it's always a big challenge. I have played a lot of matches against him, very tough ones. If you are not at your top, top level, it is very difficult to win. I need to be ready for that."
Nadal and Ferrer know each other so well, and that was on full display early in the match. After surprisingly jumping out to a 2-0 lead, Ferrer looked to establish his dominance on serve. Unfortunately for him, Nadal was unwilling to go down without a fight.
The third game of the match was back-and-forth in nature, and it featured several long rallies. When it was all said and done, Nadal came away with a well-earned break to get back in the first set, according to Tennis.com:
Ferrer quickly rebounded by breaking Nadal once again and taking a 3-1 lead, but the king of clay had plenty of tricks left up his sleeve.
Rafa battled back with yet another break as well as a hold of serve to level the match once again. Incredibly, Nadal and Ferrer managed to play almost as many points midway through the first set as Novak Djokovic did throughout his entire third-round drubbing of Pablo Carreno Busta on Thursday:
Perhaps the biggest reason for Ferrer's success early in the match was his strategic shot placement. Nadal possesses a deadly topspin forehand on clay, and Ferrer did everything possible to avoid it through the first several games:
As Nadal so often does, though, he eventually adjusted and started to dictate play on his own terms. According to Nick Nemeroff of Tennis View Magazine, Rafa became more aggressive and attacked shots to his backhand side as the first set progressed:
Nadal and Ferrer proceeded to trade holds of serve for the next several games, which necessitated a tiebreak. Most of the holds had to be earned since both Rafa and Ferrer played like brick walls at times in terms of returning almost every shot thrown at them.
By the time Nadal and Ferrer reached the first-set tiebreak, they had already played an incredible 102 points, according to Gaspar Lanca of Tenis Portugal:
Most probably expected Nadal to win the tiebreak along with the first set due to his stellar track record against Ferrer, but that wasn't the case. In fact, Ferrer blitzed his fellow Spaniard to the tune of a 7-1 blowout in the tiebreak, per ESPN Tennis:
Nadal had his issues throughout the first set, but he generally turns it on in high-pressure situations such as tiebreaks. Rafa so bad, though, that Live Tennis questioned whether it might have been the worst tiebreak of Nadal's illustrious career:
Rafa and Ferrer each earned a hold to start the second set, but Nadal's first-set issues once again reared their ugly head. Nadal struggled to get his first serves in, and while he was able to save one break point, Ferrer kept pressing.
Nadal eventually cracked, which allowed Ferrer to land the first blow of the second set as the break put him up 2-1, per Jonathan Scott of Tennis.com:
Three more holds of serve ensued and Nadal found himself in dire straits. With Ferrer leading 4-2 and up a set, Rafa desperately needed another hold in order to truly give himself a chance. Ferrer pushed Nadal to the brink of elimination, however, by earning his second break of the match and pulling to within one game of the upset, according to Tim Clement of Sky Sports:
In typical Nadal fashion, he refused to go down without a fight. Rafa's back was firmly against the wall following his poor service game, but he managed to break back in quick and impressive fashion.
Although the match still favored Ferrer, the crowd started buzzing due to the possibility of Nadal making a match of it.
Nadal used the momentum generated from his break of Ferrer to hold in his own right and shrink Ferrer's advantage to 5-4. In many ways, it seemed as though the ensuing game would be the one that would decide the entire match.
With Rafa coming on strong, Ferrer desperately needed to stem the tide and end the contest as quickly as possible.
Ferrer took a 30-0 lead in the game only for Nadal to even things up. Ferrer could have crumbled under the pressure of facing the world's top player on his preferred surface, but he was able to regroup and close out the match like a true champion by taking the next two points.
With the win, Ferrer will now prepare to take on Australian Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka in the semifinals.
Wawrinka has played better tennis than Ferrer from an overall perspective, but the clay levels the playing field. Ferrer is excellent on the red stuff due to his vast amount of experience, while Wawrinka seemingly doesn't have all of the nuances down.
Because of that, expect Ferrer's dream run to continue with a final match against possibly Djokovic or Roger Federer looming after that.
As for Nadal, all he can do is regroup and prepare for the next French Open tune-up. The loss is somewhat disturbing, but he is still the best clay-court player in tennis, and he always manages to perform at the highest possible level at Roland Garros.
Rafa may have to work a bit harder leading up to the French Open this year to ensure that he is in fine form, however, his track record suggests that this loss is nothing more than a blip on the radar.
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