A relentless Novak Djokovic dethroned clay king Rafael Nadal on the Spaniard’s home soil and maintained his extraordinary season when he stunned the world No. 1 7-5, 6-4 to win the Madrid Masters title on Sunday.
The Serbian second seed ground down the local favorite and defending champion during a succession of ferocious rallies to record his 32nd consecutive win of a defeat-free year, the best season start since John McEnroe’s 42-match streak in 1984.
The defeat marked Nadal’s first reverse on his beloved clay in 38 matches since he fell to Robin Soderling in the fourth round of the 2009 French Open and it denied him a third title on the red dirt in under a month after he won back-to-back at the Monte Carlo Masters and the Barcelona Open last month.
Djokovic, who had never beaten Nadal on clay in nine previous attempts, now has six titles this year, including the Australian Open and the Masters at Indian Wells and Miami, where he beat Nadal in both finals.
The question now is whether the 23-year-old can carry the momentum into the French Open later this month, the only one of the four Grand Slams played on clay, where champion Nadal has claimed five of the past six crowns.
“First of all to Rafa, bad luck today,” Djokovic said after collecting his winners trophy and 590,000 euros (US$824,200). “It’s always a big challenge to play you, you are a great champion. Hopefully, we can have many more matches.”
With the sliding roof open to the pale blue evening sky, one side of the futuristic Magic Box Arena was still bathed in sunshine when the match began.
A fired-up Djokovic came out on top in most of the lengthy exchanges in the early stages and surged into a 4-0 lead that prompted nervous mutterings among the home support in the packed, 12,500-capacity arena.
Ever the fighter, Nadal clawed his way back to 4-5 with two breaks and saved three Djokovic set points on his own serve to draw level at 5-5.
However, it was all in vain as the Serb held confidently and then broke Nadal for a third time to move a set ahead.
The Spaniard picked himself up and began the second set strongly, conjuring an incredible shot on the way to breaking Djokovic in the opening game.
After the Serb lifted the ball over Nadal’s head to the back of the court, he chased it down and played an audacious lob from between his legs and with his back to the net that looped over his opponent and landed just inside the baseline.
A bemused-looking Djokovic could only applaud as the crowd leapt to their feet as one.
Nadal indulged in some characteristic fist pumping, but the euphoria did not last long as he dropped his serve in the next game to make it 1-1.
With Real Madrid soccer stars Cristiano Ronaldo and Iker Casillas watching from the stands, Real fan Nadal had to dig deep to stay in the match, but he was finally floored when he went wide with a sliced backhand after another mesmerizing baseline rally on Djokovic’s second match point.
After picking up his runners-up trophy and check for 275,000 euros, Nadal praised Djokovic’s achievements and said he needed to analyze what went wrong in the match and move on.
“He is playing at a great level this year and you just have to accept that,” the 24-year-old said. “I’ll have to look at what I did wrong and go forward with the right attitude, and look for solutions and how to improve. Evidently, I wasn’t playing at my best level on clay, but I didn’t play such a bad match either. Just that against a very good Djokovic, it wasn’t enough today.”