Rafael Nadal clinched a spot in the Mutua Madrid Open finals on Saturday with a hard-fought 6-4, 6-3 victory over fellow Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut.
Entering Saturday, Nadal was hoping to keep his incredible streak of success in clay-court semifinals intact, according to ATP World Tour commentator Rob Koenig:
Rafa did precisely that and will now face the winner of the other semifinal between David Ferrer and Kei Nishikori with an opportunity to take the Madrid Open title for the second consecutive year.
Bautista Agut posed an interesting challenge for Nadal since they had never faced each other before. Rafa has a winning record over essentially every top player in tennis and seemingly always has a game plan. That wasn't necessarily the case Saturday.
Nadal's under-the-radar opponent acquitted himself well in what was his first career semifinal on the Masters circuit, per Tennis View Magazine:
As impressive as Nadal was in wins over Juan Monaco and Jarkko Nieminen in his first two Madrid Open matches, fans were apprehensive to say that he was definitively back in business.
That changed in a big way Friday when Rafa had no issue breezing past No. 6-seeded Tomas Berdych. Things were tight through the first six games of that match, but the king of clay played at a different level in the latter part of the first set as well as the second set.
After that win, he was clearly pleased with his form, according to ATPWorldTour.com:
It was a match with a lot of intensity, and perhaps it was my toughest match in the tournament. I knew that I had to go a step forward (level-wise). I think that I did it pretty well. I played pretty well during a long time. To make it to the semifinals for first time in the clay season, here in Madrid, is great news for me.
Saturday's first set initially looked as though it would be a breeze for Nadal as he broke Bautista Agut in the match's first game and jumped out to a 3-1 lead. The underdog was unwilling to bow down to his Spanish compatriot, though, and proceeded to push back.
After holding serve to cut the deficit to 3-2, Bautista Agut evened the match with a break of his own, per Tennis TV:
He demonstrated that beating him wouldn't be the cakewalk that many expected during the first set. As ESPN's Howard Bryant suggested before the match, RBA's powerful strokes proved somewhat troublesome:
Although Bautista Agut is somewhat of an unknown among casual tennis fans, he has been on the ascent for quite some time. He was excited for the opportunity to face his countryman and viewed it as a great situation due to there being no expectations for him to win, per ATPWorldTour.com:
I'm really happy for it being here in Madrid and (to make) it to the semifinals, playing against one of the best players of history. I am very happy for the current moment that I have, for the tennis that I am playing right now, and especially for being just well. ... (I am) able to go into these matches with a lot of confidence, playing my tennis and with less pressure than what I would normally have.
Bautista Agut played free and easy for much of the first set and definitely gave Nadal a run for his money.
As pointed out by Barry Flatman of the Sunday Times, Nadal didn't do himself any favors either as he struggled to find consistency with his forehand:
With Nadal serving at 3-3, Bautista Agut had a couple of opportunities to put Rafa on the ropes. He was unable to cash in on his break-point opportunities, however, and Nadal survived on serve.
Nadal followed that up with a hold of his own, but Bautista Agut held as well to allow Rafa to serve for the set at 5-4.
He secured the set after some nervous moments, but Bautista Agut most definitely proved his worth by putting up a fight, according to Neil Harman of The Times:
As seen in this graphic courtesy of Tennis TV, Nadal wasn't dominant in the first set by any means, but he was the more aggressive player, as evidenced by his 17 winners:
Nadal jumped all over Bautista Agut early in the second, who seemed as though he might have used up everything he had in the first set. Nadal had leads of 3-0 and 4-1, but Bautista Agut once again dug deep into Madrid's red clay and offered resistance.
According to Tennis TV, he managed a break of Nadal's serve to make it 4-2:
He followed that up with a hold and put the pressure back on Rafa to hold his own serve and avoid a potential 4-4 score.
Nadal's experience and confidence were on full display, though, as he held to pull within one game of victory. Bautista Agut held as well, but he could not muster another break of Rafa.
Even in a losing effort, Bautista Agut has to be happy with what he accomplished. According to tennis journalist Chris Goldsmith, Bautista Agut is on pace to reach a career-best world ranking despite the defeat:
Bautista Agut may be a factor to make some noise in the French Open, but Nadal continued to prove why he is the favorite. It is no secret that Nadal has struggled and lost in the quarterfinals in each of the two tournaments prior to Madrid; however, he has officially righted the ship.
A win over Ferrer or Nishikori in the final would complete Nadal's recent turnaround and give him all the confidence he needs to dominate at Roland Garros yet again.
Although he hasn't been perfect during his run through the Madrid Open, he has beaten some decent competition decisively.
Nadal is peaking at the perfect time, and that is extremely bad news for anyone who is looking to knock him from his perch on clay.
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