It has become so commonplace now when hearing of Rafael Nadal advancing to yet another clay court final in the weeks leading up to the French Open. You know, it's just the way of things when the season turns to spring and the ground turns the color of red brick. After all, his won-loss record on the dirt since 2005 is 151-4. But there was nothing banal about the semifinal between Nadal and Novak Djokovic that took place on Saturday afternoon in the penultimate round of the Madrid Open.
Playing in front of his adoring and venerating nationals, Nadal battled the 4th ranked Serb in one of the most riveting and competitive matches one will ever see outside of a Grand Slam event. Nadal eventually triumphed 3-6, 7-6, 7-6 in over four hours - the longest match in the history of the Masters series events.
The new state-of-the-art stadium in the Spanish capital, however aesthetically unpleasing, is called the Magic Box. Most were amused by the name when it was announced. It was built with the twin hopes of legitimizing the Madrid tournament as perhaps the "fifth Grand Slam" and as bait for the Olympic Committee to award the 2016 games to Madrid. But after a week of pedestrian tennis on both the men's and women's sides (Madrid is one of only two non-Grand Slam events that host both draws) the moniker is now immediately appropriate - all due to Spain's Magic Man, Nadal.
Like seemingly so many other epic sporting events, this match started out in distinctively inauspicious fashion and it was impossible to foresee the drama that would eventually unfold. Nadal was missing his shots with a disturbing frequency and was visibly bothered by the altitude-induced high bounces and unsure footing that the dry ground was yielding. In addition, he had to have his right knee wrapped in the early stages of the match.
Djokovic, who lost both the Rome and Monte Carlo finals this spring to Nadal and has yet to ever defeat the lefty on clay, came out strong and confident and appeared in total control of the match as he easily won the first set and was staying even in the second set. More importantly, the Serb was also keeping his emotions in check and never allowed himself to suffer any mental lapses. Djokovic has been justifiably criticized on numerous occasions for giving up on matches and for defaulting when many have thought he could have battled on.
After Nadal eventually won the 2nd set in a tiebreaker, myself and all those watching on the Tennis Channel and probably the entire crowd at the Magic Box assumed Djokovic would follow normal protocol and fold in the third set. After all, this was Nadal, right? Not so. Djokovic kept the pressure on the entire set and Nadal had to serve from behind. Sound familiar? Nadal served from behind during the 5th set of the Greatest Match Ever Played at Wimbledon last year against Roger Federer. Serving from behind in the deciding set is akin to always batting in the top half of an inning when a baseball game goes to extra innings. The pressure is intense as the home team always seems to have the advantage in such circumstances.
And sure enough, Nadal had to save one match point on his serve on his way to the deciding set tiebreaker. Nadal's increased aggressiveness when he was down a break or match point in the deciding set was testament to his confidence and champion's makeup. He went for - and made- the lines on numerous points during that last set. It was truly inspiring to watch.
During the 3rd set breaker, both players lunged, dived, groaned and refused to give any ground. It's hard to recall a match in which both players were so physically strained and were still able to produce magnificent winners from all corners of the court. Nadal saved two match points in the overtime and Djokovic saved one before the Spaniard finally emerged victorious, 11 points to 9. Nadal fell to the ground in a gesture that would suggest a triumph in Paris or London and not just a semifinal in Madrid. He knew he had done something special. Greatness in athletes is perhaps most accurately measured when one isn't completely on their game and have to struggle.
For Djokovic, it was hardly a defeat without merit. He has proved beyond any doubt that he can at least stay with the Great One on the dirt and this just amps up anticipation for the French Open which starts in two weeks. Though Nadal is still the overwhelming favorite - even more so after today's win - I look for Federer, Djokovic, Andy Murray and Juan Martin Del Potro to make an impact at Rolland Garros.
It is a wondrous time indeed to be a fan of the sport. It must be appreciated.