Near Misses: Novak Djokovic Almost Ends Rafael Nadal's Reign in Spain

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Near Misses: Novak Djokovic Almost Ends Rafael Nadal's Reign in Spain
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

When the Madrid Masters got under way in mid-May, it stirred up all sorts of publicity.

The Magic Box—the dramatic new venue for this tournament—seemed to be waving a controversial wand over the Tour with its blue clay practice courts, the deep and distracting shadows of its show courts, and unusually hard playing surfaces that delivered more than their fair share of poor bounces.

The weather, too, seemed to be gripped by an evil spell. The wind entered the high, enclosed environs of the Santana and Sanchez Vicario courts and, quite literally, kicked up a storm.

The uneven, thin surface grit ended up in the players’ eyes rather than as a thick lubricant beneath their feet. What little grit remained earthbound was loose and dry, and made it difficult for the players to change direction. It was a punishing and atypical clay event.

Rafael Nadal, the top seed, was vociferous in his opinion of his “home” tournament venue. He felt the courts was unnaturally hard and fast. He felt the balls were light and flying (though whether the altitude of Madrid’s plateau really made a difference to the balls’ characteristics was never settled). Conditions were certainly not to his liking, and they were distinctly different from those he had enjoyed just a fortnight earlier.

Nadal came to Madrid fresh from his triumph over Novak Djokovic on Rome’s more traditional clay. As luck would have it, Nadal now had to face the same man in the Madrid semifinal. This time, though, the match was on a clay surface that had a more than passing resemblance to the hard courts of North America.

The conditions in Madrid, therefore, started to take on some significance. For although Nadal held a 13-to-four head-to-head record against Djokovic, all four of the Serbian's wins had been on American hard courts.

Nadal knew just how well Djokovic was playing on clay, too. Not only had the two met in the Rome final, but Djokovic had also taken Nadal to three sets in the Monte Carlo final. On the faster, harder courts of Madrid, this could be the Serb’s moment.

There were a couple of other matters that added a touch of spice to this particular match. For Nadal, a win kept alive his chances of a clean sweep of the Masters clay-court titles in one season. For Djokovic, a win gave him the chance to regain the world No. 3 ranking that he had lost to Andy Murray only the week before. Indeed, so recent had been Djokovic’s drop to No. 4, that he was still seeded No. 3 in Madrid.

So on the appointed day, a 12,500 capacity crowd sat back to enjoy one of the keenest fought contests of the summer.

Nadal was dressed for the part in hot acid yellow and white, while Djokovic played it cool in arctic blue and white: a contest between sun-tinged Mediterranean and moon-tinted middle Europe.

The ebullient crowd did not sit back for long. The fans were soon sitting on the edge of their seats as they quickly adjusted to an unexpected turn of events. While Nadal seemed preoccupied by the court and his footing, Djokovic burst out of the blocks, firing huge drives all around the court with such weight and depth that Nadal was soon down 0-3.

As the first set developed, the ground strokes from both rackets settled into longer rallies. However, Djokovic’s penetrating shots wide to both wings, the occasional killer volley, and some first-rate serving continued to punish Nadal, who had made an uncharacteristic 11 forehand errors by the time Djokovic closed out the first set at 6-3.

In the second set, the tension cranked up almost immediately. Djokovic gained a break point in Nadal’s second service game, which Nadal saved, along with the game. But the physical toll started to show on Nadal, who called the trainer to work on his right knee and thigh.

It raised, at least for a while, the fear that the hard, unstable surface would affect the outcome of this match. But with heavy strapping in place, he returned to the fray on a newly-watered court.

The set continued with serve until, at 4-4, Djokovic won two break points. So good had the Djokovic serve been in the match that these were as good as match points.

But if Djokovic expected any weakness from Nadal, he was sorely disabused as Nadal found big serves and an overhead smash to save the game. Again Nadal sought treatment, but the set then pounded its way to a tie-break. Nadal took control, and he converted his third set point chance, seven points to five.

With two-and-a-half hours on the clock, the standard of play climbed to a yet higher level, and even greater drama.

Djokovic broke Nadal for a 3-1 lead, only to be broken back straight away. He, too, then sought treatment to his knee and thigh.

The final set stretched, via outstanding 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 began to look ragged, with hair slipping from beneath his bandanna. His obsessive rituals became slower and more precise than ever at each change of ends.

At last, a long, long rally delivered a point against serve to Djokovic. The favor was returned and the tie-break continued with serve.

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 both hit harder then ever, to greater depth and width than seemed possible. But with a roar, Nadal won the point to level at 6-6.

[YouTube alert: 10 minutes of high volume tennis, and awry Nadal hair!]

There followed another epic rally, this time won by Djokovic. Yet another brought Nadal back to 7-7. Panting with effort, he served and was rewarded with his first match point.

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.

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 on record—he finally out-drove Djokovic to take the win. He collapsed onto the court, and the crowd erupted.

But make no mistake. This was as close to winning as a loser can get. And what Djokovic did win was a great many new fans.

His shot-making was rangy, flexible, and nimble. He showed endurance and commitment. He tried out new tactics, and he very nearly got the beating of Nadal on clay.

Even after the huge disappointment of that 6-3, 6(5)-7, 6(9)-7 loss, a spark of humor surfaced: “Next time I'll probably take two rackets into the match point and try to hit with both of them...The positives are that I was one point away from the victory."

Indeed he was one point from handing Nadal only his fifth loss on clay in 154 matches.

Djokovic, in the event, left the coup de grace to Roger Federer in the final and that, it transpired, became a turning point in Nadal’s year. Nadal said of Djokovic after the match: “It seems to me he's getting better with every game." It was a prescient comment.

Their next meeting was at Cincinnati, on Djokovic’s preferred surface, and it turned the tables. Djokovic was an easy and comfortable winner. The extraordinary performance he produced in Madrid proved to be one more step in the development of a truly formidable tennis player.

 

This is the second in the "Near Miss" series. For the first, a double-header on Martina Hingis, see antiMatter's Part One and Long John's Part Two.

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