There are good matches, there are titanic tussles, and then there are those where your heart aches that there has to be a loser. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic's spectacular semifinal match at the 2009 Madrid Masters, where the Spaniard won 3-6, 7-6(5), 7-6(9), belongs to the last category.
Djokovic accumulated more points than Nadal (125 to 120) overall, and looked in a commanding position at various points in the match. But it was the Spaniard's unbreakable spirit and ability to raise his game on the biggest points that swung the final outcome his way.
In a match for the ages, it was hard to separate the two legends who used every ounce of their strength and sweat to stay afloat. With a duration of 4 hours and three minutes, it was the longest three-set match in ATP Masters 1000 history.
Novak Djokovic, touted to be one of the greats of the game, had only one Slam to his credit at that time - the 2008 Australian Open. In contrast, the Spanish star had established himself as one of the heavyweights already, having conquered three of the four Majors on offer. Nadal even opened the 2009 season with the trophy at Melbourne Park.
Very much the underdog, Djokovic still started the match with oodles of self-belief. He was the early aggressor, and snatched control right from the get-go. By breaking the Spaniard in his very first service game with some deep hitting, Djokovic silenced the 15,000-capacity crowd who had come to root for their homegrown hero.
But Rafael Nadal soon upped his intensity and started varying the placement of the ball, engaging Djokovic in a series of punishing rallies. His renewed vigor saved him from going down a double break but Djokovic bagged the set anyway, by the score 6-3.
If the latter half of the opening set was any indication, then an absolute epic was in store. Rafael Nadal cleaned up his game and cut down on his errors in the second set; looking much more settled, he started producing a barrage of topspin-heavy groundstrokes.
But Djokovic refused to blink. As always, his blistering backhand wreaked plenty of damage, while his occasional volleys did just enough to disrupt Nadal's rhythm.
The highly competitive set eventually headed to a tie-break. The southpaw was the first to seize a mini-break, which gave him a 5-3 lead. After squandering a set point, the 2008 Wimbledon winner was able to pocket it 7-6(5).
Rafael Nadal saves 3 match points before finally subduing Novak Djokovic
The decider was where the match reached another level altogether; the shot-making quality, drama and entertainment all shot through the roof. But it was the Serbian star who looked more composed as the third set progressed, and he drew first blood in the fourth game for a 3-1 lead.
Egged on by the home crowd, Rafael Nadal countered Djokovic's relentless shot-making with a couple of well-timed volleys. That helped him draw level at 3-3, and the stadium started preparing for another exhilarating tie-break.
Such a colossal classic deserved a breathtaking climax, and the tie-break delivered. It had everything to keep the fans on the edge of their seats; it was a classic battle between Djokovic's firepower and Nadal's resilience.
Down match point at 5-6, Nadal pulled out a wondrous down-the-line forehand from his bag to stave off disaster. Yet another terrific forehand saved his life at 6-7, and after another match point saved at 8-9, the southpaw finally inched ahead to 10-9.
At that stage Djokovic's forehand failed to cross the net, which brought the curtains down on one of the most spectacular ATP matches ever played.
The resounding applause and the warm hug between the two said it all. And as everyone watching knew right then, the match would go on to carve out a special place for itself in the annals of tennis history.
"In a game like that with so many match points I think you need luck to win. But I played with great courage and I think everything went well for me," said Rafael Nadal on the match.