Madrid Open 2019: How the spirited Tsitsipas recorded a memorable semifinal win over Nadal
Analysing his semi-final performance at the Mutua Madrid Open, Rafael Nadal quipped, “I think that it's more normal what is happening right now, than what happened in the past 14 years”. Maybe he was making a reference to a ‘new normal’, the fact that a ring of ‘Next-gen’ players have developed the ability to compete against the best players.
Nadal still remains the measuring stick on clay for all the players, as Roger Federer opined earlier on in the tournament. The Spaniard has set such high standards playing on the red dirt that even winning once against him becomes the biggest news of the season.
A couple of weeks ago Dominic Thiem defeated Nadal in straight sets at the semifinal stage of the Barcelona Open. And on Saturday night in Madrid Stefanos Tsitsipas did it in three, beating Nadal 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 in 2 hours 34 minutes.
Going toe to toe against Nadal in baseline rallies used to be a rare scene in the past. Many players have tried to do that over the years, and almost all of them have failed. But the fact that they even tried it shows how they walked right into Nadal's trap.
The Spaniard makes his opponents play ‘his’ game. He tempts his opponents to trade groundstrokes with him, in his own enticingly dangerous way. On the court, as a player, you sometimes feel that Nadal can be blown away. But you don't realize you are being eaten up until he pushes you back behind the baseline inch by inch, and gets into position to hit his run-around inside-out forehand.
On Saturday, Tsitsipas must have felt the same. But the 20-year-old Greek managed to hold his own in the baseline rallies, refusing to yield an inch. Firm and powerful, Tsitsipas hit every ball with purpose. Nadal had to work extra hard to win every service game in the opening set because a stout-hearted Tsitsipas played every ball on its merit.
A gutsy hold by making the right moves when he was down three break points at 2-3 gave a lot of confidence to the Greek, especially since both players were struggling on serve. But the highlight was how he followed that up with a break of serve in the very next game to gain the edge.
Tsitsipas lost his serve after that, then broke Nadal for a second time, for a 4-3 lead. Though Nadal broke back in typical fashion, the crowd were treated to a 'break-chain' as Tsitsipas' service returns did all the damage for a third break.
The Greek sensation won the first set 6-4, in just under an hour - the first set he had ever taken off Nadal in his four meetings. Breaks of serve rarely bothered Tsitsipas because every time he was broken, he came back stronger with his mind-boggling returns.
There was a dramatic turnaround in the second set as Nadal broke Tsitsipas for a 4-2 lead when the Greek couldn't maintain the same intensity. By this time Tsitsipas had made six unforced errors off his forehand wing.
The 20-year-old could neither hit his first serve well nor control his forehand responses. There was a huge swing in the momentum as Nadal won 10 points in a row, pressing forward whenever the occasion demanded. He pocketed the second set 6-2, dousing Tsitsipas' comeback attempt in his last service game of the set.
The crowd were delighted to watch Nadal dominate the second set by advancing to the net and applying pressure on Tsitsipas’ backhand and forehand wings constantly. But in the third game of the decider, Tsitsipas won a 22-shot rally with a net approach forehand winner. That gave him two break points, and it seemed like a statement of intent from the Greek, showing everyone that he was still in the hunt.
Though he failed to break on that occasion, his deep and fast service returns helped him break Nadal at 2-2.
The Spaniard did threaten to break back, but Tsitsipas firmly held on to his serve, even saving break points regularly. Later on, a penetrating backhand crosscourt return gave him a break point for a double break. He broke for a 5-2 lead when Nadal netted a backhand volley, much to everyone's surprise.
Although Nadal denied Tsitsipas an easy hold to serve it out, and broke right back playing some fiery tennis, the 20-year-old broke Nadal once again to seal the match 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 in 2 hours 34 minutes.
In his post match interview, Tsitsipas remarked, "The mental discipline and being tough and being decisive in all those crucial moments I think was the key." In fact, throughout the semi-final encounter, the Greek showed a lot of maturity. He knew he didn’t have to do anything silly to beat the King of Clay, and he stuck to his strengths no matter what his opponent tried.
Tsitsipas has been able to ward off the Nadal challenge, and now he will have to do it all over again, as he meets the World No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the final. That will be another severe test for the young star in the making, but you know he will be prepared for it.