Rafael Nadal continued his impressive tear at the Mutua Madrid Open Thursday with a breezy 6-1, 6-4 triumph over Jarkko Nieminen in the third round.
With the victory, the scintillating Spaniard advanced to the quarterfinals and took another step toward successfully defending his Madrid Open title.
The stars were out in full force to witness Nadal's greatness on the Madrid clay, including Real Madrid soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, as seen in this photo courtesy of Tennis TV:
Nadal needed a strong performance in his second-round match against Juan Monaco Wednesday in order to ease the sting of quarterfinal exits in his previous two tournaments.
Rafa clearly took some frustration out on his Argentinian opponent as he came away with a decisive 6-1, 6-0 victory.
After the dominant showing, Nadal believed that he was starting to trend in the right direction once again, according to the Associated Press via USA Today: "Each victory helps to raise your confidence. I started a little nervously in my movement. I think I moved better and played well, better than I normally play on the clay. I was dominating over the points and playing very well. I think I've done positive things."
If that confidence boost wasn't enough, Nadal received one from tennis legend Andre Agassi, as well. Following Rafa's second-round match, Agassi called him the greatest player of all time, per Singapore's The Straits Times via Reuters and Al Jazeera:
I'd put Nadal number one and Federer number two. Federer separated himself from the field for four years. He separated himself from Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt. Nadal had to deal with Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray in the golden age of tennis. He has done what he has done and he's not done yet.
Such high praise from a well-respected star like Agassi had to feel good from Nadal's perspective, and he backed up Agassi's assertion on the court, as well.
Nadal's first set against Nieminen was eerily similar to what he was able to do against Monaco one day earlier. The feisty Finn was able to take a 1-0 lead, but Rafa stormed back to win six straight games, including three breaks of serve.
In total, it took Nadal a mere half-hour to establish a 1-0 set advantage during Thursday's clash, according to ESPN Tennis:
Nadal clinches the 1st set 6-1 in less than 30 minutes over Nieminen. Watch live coverage of the 2nd set on @ESPN3.— ESPNTennis (@ESPNTennis) May 8, 2014
Nadal decimated Nieminen across the board in the first set, but the most telling statistic was Rafa's 100 percent success rate on both his own, as well as Nieminen's, second serve:
Many observers were worried about Nadal's form entering the Madrid Open, which led Neil Harman of The Times to sarcastically tweet about the king of clay's demise:
Rafael Nadal obviously finished. Three sets in Madrid, two games dropped.— Neil Harman (@NeilHarmanTimes) May 8, 2014
Nadal proceeded to jump out to a 3-0 lead in the second set and seemed poised to hang a bagel on Nieminen just as he did to Monaco. Nieminen put up a fight, however, and made things quite interesting.
The fighting Finn was finally able to hold serve and he followed that up with his first break of Nadal's serve. As pointed out by Kheredine Idessane of BBC, sloppy play from Nadal was the main culprit:
Interesting ; from 3-0 and cruising, Nadal plays 2 error strewn games to give Nieminen some hope. Defending champ still a set up, Madrid— BBCKheredine (@BBCKheredine) May 8, 2014
Nieminen then held yet again to even things up at 3-3 in the second set. Lesser players might fold under that type of pressure, but Rafa quickly curtailed Nieminen's momentum by holding quickly and decisively to go up 4-3.
Things nearly shifted in Nieminen's direction once again after that, as he held and earned a break point on Nadal's serve. Rafa was able to save it and win two more points in succession, though, to go up 5-4 and pull within a game of winning the match.
After squandering such a golden opportunity, Nieminen was unable to recover. He had a chance to prolong the match on serve; however, Nadal came through with a break and sealed the win.
With Nadal's victory over Nieminen, he will move on to face Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals, per Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times:
Solid comeback win for Tomas Berdych, beating recent Bucharest champ Grigor Dimitrov 3-6, 6-3, 6-2. He'll face Nadal next in the QFs.— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) May 8, 2014
Berdych will unquestionably be Nadal's biggest test in Madrid thus far, but their "rivalry" has been a one-sided one over the years. Nadal has won 17 of the 20 meetings between them, including all five times they have played on clay.
Nadal's path to the final, as well as his second consecutive Madrid Open title, is quite clear. A potential meeting with Andy Murray in the semifinals is likely the biggest challenge remaining, but Rafa has never dropped a match to the Brit on the red stuff.
How will Nadal ultimately fare in the 2014 Mutua Madrid Open?
There is some risk in lauding Nadal for strong performances against unseeded players like Monaco and Nieminen, but it is promising to see Nadal in fine form after his uncharacteristic hiccups in previous tournaments.
Winning the Madrid Open would likely mean a lot to Nadal due to the fact that it is in his home country, but more importantly because it is one of his final tests prior to the French Open.
Entering Roland Garros on a roll would be a huge deal for Nadal since the unanimous expectation is for him to win the tournament.
Every win should help restore Nadal's confidence a little bit more. The Madrid Open title is there for the taking, and Rafa's recent play suggests that he is ready to reach out and grab it.
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