Novak Djokovic's first-ever clay win over Rafael Nadal: This day, that year
- On this day 9 years ago, Novak Djokovic bested Rafael Nadal on clay for the first time in 10 matches.
- The match signaled a shift in the Djokovic-Nadal rivalry; the Serb has dominated his fellow GOAT candidate since then.
On this day - 8 May - in the year 2011, Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal for the first time on clay. It took the Serb as many as 10 attempts to finally get over the line against the King of Clay.
The then 24-year-old had notched up an impressive 27-0 start to the year, raking in titles at the Australian Open, Dubai, Indian Wells, Miami and Belgrade before arriving in Madrid.
Novak Djokovic opened his Madrid campaign with straight-set wins over Kevin Anderson and Guillermo Garcia Lopez. Following a pair of three-set wins over David Ferrer and Thomaz Bellucci, Djokovic locked horns with Nadal for the third time that year.
Despite beating the Spaniard in the Indian Wells and Miami finals in 2011, the Serb was the underdog heading into the Madrid title match. And there were several solid reasons for that.
Novak Djokovic had never beaten Nadal in nine previous meetings on the surface, and trailed the Spaniard 2-5 in tournament finals - which included two title matches on clay. But given his stellar start to the year, Djokovic had reason for optimism.
How Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal in the 2011 Madrid final
Nadal went into the match riding a streak of 36 consecutive matches on clay, and had lost only six times in 196 matches on the surface. To beat Nadal on his favored surface required a level of physical and mental endurance, as well as unerring accuracy, that not many players have ever managed to summon.
On that day though, Novak Djokovic played with the confidence of a man who hadn't lost in 31 matches that year.
The Serb seemed to pick up where he left off at Indian Wells and Miami, bursting to a 4-0 lead in the first set. But a backhand error at 5-3 30-30, when serving for the set, seemed to open the floodgates for Nadal - and the Spaniard promptly came roaring back into the contest.
Nadal recouped the break and survived multiple break points before holding serve for 5-5. Novak Djokovic, however, remained unperturbed. The Serb steadied the ship to hold serve, and then broke Nadal in the next game to take the opener.
Any signs that Djokovic would capitalize on his momentum were quickly dispelled when Nadal broke at the start of the second set. But the Serb broke back immediately and soon laid siege on Nadal's serve.
At break point down in the fourth game of the set, Nadal benefited from a routine Djokovic backhand miss. But there was to be no letting off from the Serb.
Nadal fought increasingly hard to keep pace with his determined opponent, but fell behind three championship points while serving to stay in the match at 4-5.
Novak Djokovic closed out his first win on clay against Nadal by giving the Spaniard a taste of his own medicine. The Serb out-rallied Nadal from the baseline to clinch match point, thus bagging his sixth final in as many tournaments that year.
Djokovic remarked after the match:
“Under the circumstances, I’ve played probably the best match of my life on clay against the World No. 1 and the player to beat on this surface."
Nadal was gracious in defeat, acknowledging that Novak Djokovic was the deserving winner. The Spaniard said:
"I came up against a great player obviously - he's having a monster year. He was better, I have to accept that."
Where the match was lost for Rafael Nadal
Djokovic dictated play for the most part in the final, with his backhand being especially impressive. The then World No. 2 broke Nadal five times from 12 break point opportunities in the match.
Nadal saves an astounding two out of every three break points against his serve on clay. But on the day, he could do so on only seven occasions out of 12 (58%).
Another significant aspect which led to Nadal's downfall was his second serve win percentage. The Spaniard wins an impressive 57% of points on his second delivery on clay overall, but that was down to 38% on the day.
Besides his serve, Nadal's return of serve was also underwhelming on the day. He wins nearly 50% (47%) of return points on clay overall, but could win only 38% against Djokovic in the 2011 Madrid final.
With two of his primary weapons misfiring, Nadal was also frequently out-rallied from the baseline - factors which eventually contributed to his loss.
This match signaled a decisive shift in the Rafael Nadal vs Novak Djokovic rivalry, and the start of the Serb's dominance over his Big 3 peers (the third being Roger Federer). Before the 2011 Madrid final, Nadal led Djokovic 16-9 in the overall head-to-head, and 9-0 in the clay head-to-head. But since then Djokovic has won 20 out of 30 matches over his arch-rival, including six out of 14 on red dirt.
Novak Djokovic always had the self-belief of a champion. But it wasn't until the 2011 Madrid final that he knew for sure he could beat the King of Clay at his own game. Much to the dismay of 'Fedal' fans, the Serb hasn't looked back since.