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Injury derails Kei Nishikori, hands Rafael Nadal victory in Madrid

Rafael Nadal clinched the Madrid Open title after Kei Nishikori retired from the match with an injury, with Nadal leading 2-6, 6-4, 3-0.

Rafael Nadal (R) and Kei Nishikori pose with their trophies at the Madrid Open 2014

Rafael Nadal (R) and Kei Nishikori pose with their trophies at the Madrid Open 2014

A little more than an hour into the finals of the Mutua Madrid Open, it appeared that Kei Nishikori might register a staggering upset with an unlikely victory over Rafael Nadal. The Japanese played sensationally brilliant tennis to torment the defending champion, but even as Nadal sought to find a way back, an injured Nishikori stumbled and faltered, unable to maintain his dazzling level of play beyond the middle of the second set. Eventually, Nishikori decided to withdraw with the match in Nadal’s control at 2-6, 6-4, 3-0.

Nishikori, showing no signs of wear from that gruelling three set duel against David Ferrer, got off to a rousing start. But that did come with a bit of work at the beginning; Nadal won the first game to love and pushed Nishikori on the back foot in the next game.

The Japanese survived the first break point of the evening to hold his own against the three-time Madrid champion (2005, 2010 and 2013). The events that followed left a packed audience inside the Manolo Santana court at the Caja Majica in stunned silence. Nishikori attacked with gay abandon to break Nadal not once but twice in a row, as he raced away to a 5-1 lead.

Nadal had to bring out some fight from his deep reservoir of resilience to save a set point on his serve to ensure that Nishikori needed to serve for the set. But the world No. 10 did just that, wrapping up the set with an ace down the middle to take control of the match. It was the first time that Nishikori had won a set over the Spaniard since he did so once in their first meeting in 2008.

It was a strangely one-sided affair, which was against the grain for a match featuring Nadal on his favourite surface. The Spaniard made 12 unforced errors against just two winners as he struggled to find his range off the ground. He was only winning 50% of his second serve points, and that helped Nishikori to keep the defending champion under pressure.

There was no let up for Nadal at the beginning of the second set. Nishikori continued to play with venomous bite and drew three break points in the first game. The Japanese was using his forehand to telling effect as he kept moving Nadal side to side till he found enough space for the winner along the lines. An inside-out forehand of considerable power helped clinch the early break.

The Spaniard was in desperate trouble but he managed to find his beastly power and spin to earn three break points in the second game. And that is when Nishikori, the newest member of the top 10 club, showed that belonged among the elite; he brought out his best serve when he needed it, including an ace to win five straight points and take a 2-0 lead.

By now Nadal had gotten his game into some shape and had started to push his opponent hard for that elusive break. After an easy hold in the third game, Nadal pushed Nishikori to deuce in the fourth game. The visibly nervous Japanese made a double fault to offer Nadal a whiff, but yet again prevailed under duress for an important hold to 3-1.

At the other end, Nadal was holding his own serve without too much fuss, though he was still down a break. Under pressure to stay ahead, Nishikori managed to restore some of his own confidence with a strong sixth game. Nishikori used his ability to gain sharp angles and considerable power off his backhand crosscourt to hurt Nadal.

At 4-2, Nadal held to love – with the help of an ace and a thumping forehand up the line winner, to remain within striking distance of his surging opponent. Nishikori was struggling with his movement just a little during that middle phase of the second set, and sought the trainer’s intervention just before starting to serve at 4-3.

A quick massage eased some of the tension in Nishikori’s lower back, but Nadal made the most of his tentative movement to gain two break points in his bid to get even in the second set. Yet again though, the Japanese showed remarkable poise to hold out and save both points as he worked his way back to deuce.

But a limp forehand fell into the net to offer Nadal his seventh opportunity to break serve. And the Spaniard finally took this one when Nishikori’s forehand sailed long to regain the break.

The crowd was electrified and Nadal drew on their energy to arouse his dormant spirit. At 5-4 in the second set, Nadal was leaping forth even as Nishikori was limping in pain.

The Japanese took an on court medical time out, getting the trainer to work on his muscles. Meanwhile, Nadal was bouncing his feet around the baseline to keep himself fired up for a fightback.

On resumption of play Nishikori was clearly seeking to shorten the points as he served to stay in the set, but in trying to fire bullets made one error too many to surrender the set to Nadal.

A despondent looking Nishikori, who dominated the match for a set and a half, only managed to win five of the last 22 points in the second to allow Nadal a new lease of life. As he walked inside for more treatment just ahead of the final set, the forlorn look on Nishikori’s face caused grave concern of his physical well being.

When he came back to court, he was just a pale shadow of the brilliant player who was so dominant in the early phase of the match. Soon Nadal was leading 3-0, with Nishikori barely able to serve or cover the baseline. As the Japanese got up to shake hands, Nadal realised he had just won the 27th Masters Series title and the 63rd title of his glittering career.

It wasn’t in the manner that Nadal may have wished for, but he will take this victory as he continues building up his fortress ahead of his quest for a record extending ninth French Open crown.

Nishikori, meanwhile, can take plenty of positives from the start of this match and hope that he recovers quickly enough to be healthy in time for the second Grand Slam of the year at Roland Garros.

The French Open will be played from 25th May through 9th June. But before that, Nadal will head to Rome to join Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray in dealing with the growing sense that tennis is perhaps in the throes of a transition from the era of the big four, who have so thoroughly dominated the tennis calendar for the past decade.

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