Through four months of the season we tennis fans are a lucky lot. Consider we’ve witnessed two Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal clashes and Sunday we’ll get a third Nadal-Novak Djokovic showdown in the Madrid Tennis Masters final. But it very nearly didn’t happen.
At different moments Saturday, both Nadal and Djokovic were under serious pressure.
Playing some of the best, most aggressive tennis we’ve seen from him this year, Federer, who was down a break early, went on a tear against Nadal winning five of the last six games to take the first set. But Nadal, as we’ve seen him do so often, regrouped, found the margin and seized the match pulling away with a 5-7, 6-1, 6-3 victory.
“I don’t think it was our best match for either of us, I think we both made some errors, more than usual,” said Nadal. “The difference between the good players and the best ones is that when you play badly you win; that is what the best players do. I think that at moments Roger played very aggressive and great tennis and in other moments he had more mistakes than usual. So the match was a little bit up and down, but for sure it’s always a special match against each other. It’s a pleasure to play against him – always an honor.”
Djokovic was in greater trouble. The young Thomaz Bellucci backed up his confident words and continued his impressive play by taking the first set and going up a break in the second 3-1. But the clock seemingly struck midnight and Djokovic reeled off 11 of the last 13 games to win 4-6, 6-4, 6-1.
“I always believed throughout the whole match that I could turn it around and I was right,” said Djokovic. “He was definitely the better player for a set and a half. He was more aggressive. I just felt quite slow on the court from the start of the match and it took me a while to really get into the rhythm. But when I did, when I made that crucial break, it was much better.”
Credit to both Federer and Bellucci both of whom played some incredible tennis.
Federer looked poised to get blown out early but suddenly switched into another gear and absolutely went on the offensive hitting backhands like we’ve haven’t seen this year or really since London. The Swiss was indeed a factor.
“I thought Rafa played well and me too at times so it was a good match,” said Federer showing there is some life in those old bones. “It was it a good first set and even the second set at 6-1 doesn’t tell the truth and the third as well. I felt it was very close. Maybe the result doesn’t show as much but I thought I was right here.”
For Bellucci, he was in control and should have closed out the Serb but mentally/physically just couldn’t handle it. Did the groin issue for which he had treatment lead or contribute to to the derailment? Perhaps.
So the final is set and someone’s streak is going to end. That’s for sure. Nadal has won 37 straight on the clay. Djokovic has won 33 straight overall and 31 consecutively in 2011.
At the start of the clay season I felt that Djokovic would get Nadal at least once on the clay. And as we saw again today, Nadal is attackable on the fast Madrid courts at the altitude. However…
I also saw Djokovic really struggle with a lesser lefty in Bellucci. I know the Serb got through but he does seem to be burning out just a little. Remember, he had a tough match against David Ferrer on Friday, then another three setter today and now he gets Nadal on clay and in Spain. That’s a lot to ask. And since moving to the clay his scorelines haven’t been as dominating as they were on the hardcourts so maybe he’s starting to lose some shine.
Head-to-head Nadal has the big edge 16-9 and more importantly 9-0 on clay. But Djokovic does have two wins this year – both in epic three set finals at Indian Wells and Miami – and he did push Nadal to the very, very brink on the same Madrid court in 2009. And this time Djokovic is a much better, more confident player.
“Of course the memories come back from Madrid in 2009 when we played that very, very long match,” Djokovic said. “I am motivated to win against everybody, especially Rafa, because it’s the ultimate challenge on clay. I think anyone would wish to play him in the final of a clay court tournament. He’s been winning on clay so much over the past couple of years – I need to step on the court and try to win.”
Added Nadal, “I’m very much aware that in the last two finals against him I lost and maybe the conditions suit him a bit more now because of that. Here I think the conditions here are a bit more in his favor. I plan to accept this and all the difficulties that will surely be there and accept that this is going to be a very complicated match that I could lose even playing well.”
And while the court and condition may tip slightly in favor of Djokovic, physically I have to wonder how much Novak has for Rafa on Sunday. And the fact that Novak is 0-9 career against Nadal on clay cannot be overlooked.
As for Nadal, he enjoyed a walkover on Thursday, a quick win on Friday over Llodra and then endured one tough set today against Federer. Rafa should be 100%. And after a sub-par performance today I think Uncle Toni well get him into shape for the final. So with the match in Spain, his mother watching (it’s Mother’s day) and the Seve Ballesteros passing I’m sticking with my pick for the tournament and taking Nadal here 7-6, 6-3.
It may be straight sets but look for another long, physical match between the two. Because both players are so tough off the ground I think the player who serves best will have the big edge. The first set for Djokovic could be crucial especially if he is feeling some fatigue. I don’t think he can pull off another comeback like he’s done twice already this year against Nadal.
Match time at the aptly named Magic Box is 12:30pm ET and Tennis Channel has live coverage. Check out ESPN3.com for live streaming. The match will be preceded by the women’s final between Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova at 9:30am ET.
SUNDAY MADRID SCHEDULE
MANOLO SANTANA start 1:00 pm
 B Bryan (USA) / M Bryan (USA) vs  M Llodra (FRA) / N Zimonjic (SRB) – ATP DOUBLES FINAL
Not Before 3:30 PM
 V Azarenka (BLR) vs  P Kvitova (CZE) – WTA SINGLES FINAL
Not Before 6:30 PM
 R Nadal (ESP) vs  N Djokovic (SRB) – ATP SINGLES FINAL
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