World number five Rafael Nadal snapped a seven-match losing streak against rival and defending champion Novak Djokovic on Saturday in the semifinals of the Mutua Madrid Open, blowing away the world number two in a straight-sets drubbing. Nadal entered the match undefeated on clay in 2017, but was facing questions about whether he had the mental strength to beat Djokovic after seven consecutive straight-set defeats at the Serbians hands.
The Spaniard quickly silenced his doubters, showing no signs of his opponent being in his head when he raced out to an early lead and never looked back, cruising into his ninth Madrid final with a 6-2, 6-4 victory. Nadal never trailed in the match.
Fast start from Nadal
It had been nearly three years since Nadal had not only won a match against Djokovic, but had even won a set. However, since their last meeting almost a year ago in Rome, everything had changed. Nadal came into the semifinal in the midst of his best start to a season since 2009, winning two titles, including tenth titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, and reaching three further finals, including the Australian Open and Miami Masters. Djokovic, on the other hand, has struggled so far in 2017, only winning one title, in his first event of the year in Doha, which was, prior to Madrid, his only semifinal appearance so far this season.
Nadal set the tone for the match immediately, pounding Djokovic into errors in the opening game of the match on the Serbian’s serve and breaking to love with a return winner to get off to a perfect start. The Spaniard would have to battle out of a 0-30 hole and through a deuce to consolidate the break, but after holding he swiftly put the pressure back on Djokovic. While Nadal was relentless, the second seed was struggling to keep the ball in the court and a series of errors gave the home favourite a double break point. Nadal would rip an inside out forehand winner to take a double break lead.
To the four-time champion’s credit, he seemingly could not miss and was giving Djokovic, a two-time Madrid champion himself, nothing to work with. In the first four games of the match, all won by Nadal, the Spaniard only surrendered four points. The Serbian would finally get on the board in the fifth game, but not before Nadal battled back to deuce to stretch the game out. After a strong hold from the Spaniard, Djokovic would have to fight through multiple deuces to avoid being broken for the set. Despite holding for 2-5, the second seed had no answer for Nadal’s high level, as the four-time champion claimed his first set over Djokovic since the 2014 French Open final with a hold to 15, finishing with a perfect drop shot.
Home hero fights through
The ball kept rolling for Nadal at the start of the second set, and things went from bad to worse for the Serbian who struck four unforced errors in the opening game of the set on his own serve, handing Nadal another opening break. This time, Djokovic would find a way back. After holding to close to 1-2, the two-time champion went on offence and a pair of big crosscourt backhands at deuce secured the Serbian’s first break of the day, levelling the set at 2-2.
It would not last, however, as Nadal quickly reclaimed control of the match. The Spaniard took away what seemed like a won point for Djokovic by chasing down a drop volley at 30-30 on the Serbian’s serve in the next game, but while he missed the break point, a huge forehand passing shot winner from deep in the court gave Nadal a second and this time, another big forehand drew an error and the four-time champion reclaimed a break lead.
The lone break would be enough for the Spaniard, as his solid baseline play kept Djokovic at bay for the remainder of the match. In the final game, Nadal would squander a pair of match points and had to face a break point at 40-AD, but he would save it with a massive combination of backhands and a near-perfect drop shot. Two points later, the Spaniard booked his place in the final when his backhand passing shot drew a volley long from Djokovic.
By the numbers
Nadal was extremely solid in all aspects of the match. He was both the more aggressive of the pair, hitting 20 winners to Djokovic’s 17, while also being far more consistent with only 18 unforced errors to the Serbian’s 24. Not surprisingly, both men showed off their great second serve returns, winning more than 50 percent of points when their opponent missed the first delivery, but Nadal was still far strong, winning 48 percent of his second serves to Djokovic’s 41.
The big difference was first serve, as Nadal won 78 percent of his first serve points, while the Serbian was limited to just 56 percent thanks to the Spaniard’s dominant return. In the end, Nadal only faced two break points, saving one, while he converted four of his six.
Nadal is through to the Madrid final for the ninth time in his career and will look to win a fifth title against either Dominic Thiem, who he beat for the Barcelona title two weeks ago, or Pablo Cuevas.