There are certain moments in sporting contests that live long in the memory, a backhand that drops just in, greeted by stunned silence, to set up break point. The simple volley that kisses the net and drops back, agonisingly, instead of over. That sequence of shots saw Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas take a decisive double break in the deciding set of his thrilling late-night battle at the Madrid Open with the great Rafael Nadal, who has so often ruled supreme in his nation’s capital.
It was one of those magical nights that only one of the great tennis tournaments can conjure. Madrid may not be quite as iconic as one of the four Majors, but La Caja Magica is an impressive sporting venue nonetheless, and this night it was watching its favourite son struggle and scrap for his life. Indeed, in the almost desperate silence, broken only by bouts of nervous encouragement, it was hard not to be reminded of the Center Court crowd watching Andy Murray or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Philippe Chatrier. Not on one of those glorious nights when their quest for that elusive Slam title went on. Rather, as was all too often the case for Murray and always was for Tsonga, it was a night when the opponent proved just too sharp and too fast. When determination and desire alone were not enough.
Nadal had battled with his usual ferocity. Twice he had rallied from a break down in the first set, only to fail at the last. Undeterred, in the second set he rallied, conjuring a storm of winners to sweep past the young Greek. But not for nothing is Tsitsipas’ widely expected to have a future filled with successes at the biggest tournaments in the sport. Last year, he bested Novak Djokovic in Toronto, the Serb’s first tournament since ending his Grand Slam drought, going on to reach the final. He backed that up by shocking his childhood idol and the defending champion Roger Federer at the Australian Open earlier this season on his way to the semifinals.
Tsitsipas broke through early in the third set, snatching Nadal’s serve and the momentum with it. He played without fear, relying on a mixture of impressive power He played without fear, relying on the application of impressive power, particularly his forehand, and well-timed approaches to the net. Even when Nadal broke back late in the third, Tsitsipas’ challenge did not falter. Even as Nadal saved match points with a driven backhand winner, an audacious drop shot and a flicked half-volley, Tsitsipas’ will was unwavering.
At the fourth time of asking, he claimed his victory, burnishing his already gleaming reputation further still. His reward is a second chance to claim his first Masters 1000 trophy. But standing between him and the biggest title of his career is Novak Djokovic. The world #1 has not yet dropped a set and in the semifinals got the better of Dominic Thiem, 7-6 7-6, delivering arguably his best performance since the Australian Open. He will go into the final the favourite, despite Tsitsipas’ jaw-dropping victory. But win or lose this time, it is becoming increasingly clear that Tsitsipas will play a significant role in the future of the men’s game.
But questions around Nadal are growing. Only a fool would write Nadal off. Time and time again, he has been counted out only to rally to yet more glory. And there were impressive signs this week, most notably his 6-1 6-2 demolition of Stan Wawrinka in the quarterfinals. Equally however, this loss of form must surely be a concern to the Spaniard. This is after all, the third straight clay-court semifinal he has unexpectedly lost, leaving him entering the Italian Open without a title for the first-time in his career.
And whilst Tsitsipas played exceptionally well, Nadal did not. He made unusual unforced errors and at times the swing of both his famous forehand and his backhand seemed hesitant. His net play, an often underrated but extremely impressive, was disappointing. His game seems plagued by inconsistency, an inability to follow one good performance with another that is most unlike Nadal. And it has arrived at the worst possible time.
The competition for the French Open title will be fierce. Nadal will have to contend with a renewed Novak Djokovic, who has won the last three Slams and dismantled Nadal in the Australian Open final earlier this year. In Madrid, after an indifferent period in April and March, he has found his form. Roger Federer, who lost in the quarterfinals in Madrid playing on clay for the first time since in 2016, is also set to compete in Rome and Paris, though may not be amongst the most credible title-threats in either city. But he is a vastly experienced campaigner, able to outfox all but the most determined of opponents.
Thiem, who beat Nadal en route to the title in Barcelona, also looks dangerous. This week, he beat Federer from match point down, his second consecutive victory over the Swiss after his triumph in the final in Indian Wells, before losing narrowly to Djokovic in one of the best matches of the clay-court season so far. Last year, he reached the final at Roland Garros and it seems certain that he will be an opponent few relish facing there this season.
Of course, in the slower conditions in Rome and Paris, away from the high altitude of Madrid which has never quite suited his game, Nadal may well remind the world just how good he is at his best. It certainly would not be a surprise to see Nadal re-affirm his position as the King of Clay with titles at the Foro Italico and Roland Garros. But for now, the attention of the tennis world remains focused on the Madrid Open. For there, Tsitsipas has the chance to strike another blow against the long hegemony of the great three. And, one rather suspects, it may not be too long before he has knocked it down entirely.
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