Rafael Nadal picked up, on paper at least, his best win of the 2017 season, crushing his rival Novak Djokovic 6-2, 6-4 in the semifinals today at the Madrid Masters.
“I think I played a really good first set. The second set I was a little bit more nervous. I played a little bit shorter. I think then the match was more even. Finally I managed to win it. It’s a very important victory. It gives me the possibility to play another final and to continue in a positive line. I am happy the way I played today, being able to make it to the final once again. I’ll try to be 100% and ready for tomorrow’s match.”
Nadal looked his vintage self, dominating Djokovic off the ground and even, at times, with his serve to earn his first Top 3 win since beating Andy Murray to in Monte Carlo last year.
Nadal broke Djokovic early in both sets, and fought off a late push from the Serb to clinch the win. Nadal finished with 20 winners (7 from the backhand) to 17 unforced. Djokovic was 17 to 24, and really struggled on the day with his serve winning just 56% on first serve and only 41% on second. That’s not going to beat many people, especially not Nadal on clay!
“I tried my best. It wasn’t a very high quality of tennis from my side. I made a lot of unforced errors, especially in the first set, said Djokovic, “I felt like I was playing well throughout the week. I could have played better today. But, again, I just had an opponent that was too good. It’s just one of these days where your opponent is playing better than you, and you have to be able to say ‘congratulations’ and move on.”
Rafa had lost seven straight matches and 15 straight sets to Djokovic since the 2014 French Open final. But it was their first meeting since 2016 Rome and Djokovic is a much different player these days. Gone is the coaching camp, gone is the hardened game and gone is the fear factor. Djokovic once again appeared weary and out-of-sorts during the contest, though a lot of that had to do with Nadal’s ferocious power. And again, that Rafa backhand was just nasty.
It was their 50th meeting and while Nadal stopped the slide, Djokovic is still ahead 26-24.
“Rafa was obviously a better player today. He deserved to win. He was controlling the game from beginning to the end,” said Djokovic. “His quality was very high and he managed to do whatever he wanted, especially in the first set. He did get the better of me in most of the stats today, most of the shots.”
Djokovic had won the title a year ago, so unable to defend his title his ranking points continue to erode. And the questions mount. What’s wrong with the guy who dominated the sport just a year ago, now hasn’t even been to a final in four months (last 5 events).
“It was really good to play in the semifinals of a big event and to play against one of my top rivals. I haven’t had that feeling in months, so it’s great to feel that,” said Djokovic. “It was a positive week and a positive experience. I take more positives than negatives going into next week in Rome. As I go along, I hope to continue getting better and getting stronger.”
In the final, Nadal meets Dominic Thiem who ousted Pablo Cuevas 6-4, 6-4 in a match that ended a few minutes past midnight (bad scheduling!). Thiem beat Nadal on clay (South American clay) last year and is a workhorse, but the odds are stacked he can topple Nadal.
“What’s important to me is to make it to another final,” said Nadal. “As time goes by, what is important is the titles, not the opponents that you have beaten. It’s just the titles that you have won. It’s true that some matches are more important than others. But I’m just here to try to make it the best possible way, to play my best tennis, and of course to beat an opponent such as Novak, it gives you a lot of confidence. It shows you you’re working in the right way.”
I think Thiem will give Nadal his toughest test of the week and I wouldn’t be stunned by an upset – Nadal doesn’t play his best in Madrid. But Nadal’s on that roll again and I think that continues.
“I feel great. It means a lot to play my first final at this level. These tournaments are so strong, so it’s amazing for me to go that far. I’m very happy at the moment,” said Thiem. “I will give everything tomorrow and hope I can play a good final.”
The final is on at noon ET. Nadal goes for his 4th Madrid title while Thiem, who saved five MPs against Dimitrov earlier in the week, eyes the biggest win of his career in his first Masters final.
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