If a review is taken regarding the tennis played in the last two weeks on the European clay, everyone would say it was a tremendous display of talent by the youngsters who were carving their own niche amidst some big clay court players that include the likes of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
Coming into the clay season this year, everyone pinned their hopes on Rafael Nadal to make it big on his favourite surface where he was invincible for more than a decade. Let's not forget the fact that Rafa came to this clay season after recovering from a mild knee injury that he suffered from during Indian Wells.
Rafa was a bit shaky during the earlier rounds in Monte Carlo but gradually picked up momentum with victories against Roberto Bautista Agut, Grigor Dimitrov and Guido Pella until he faced his long-time rival on clay, Fabio Fognini. The Italian, if psychologically stable, has the game to pose a mighty threat to Nadal and he did the same in the semi-finals of the Monte Carlo Masters as he defeated him in straight sets, 6-4, 6-2.
On the other hand, world number one Djokovic was also in a bit of dry form after his sensational victory over Nadal in the final of the Australian Open earlier this year. He was knocked out in the earlier rounds both in Indian Wells and Miami as he arrived on the clay with a sense of doubt.
He was defeated by the young Russian Daniil Medvedev in the quarter-finals of the Monte Carlo Masters in a jaw-dropping thriller.
Novak opted out of Barcelona Open to focus solely on the upcoming Madrid Masters where he had successfully won the tournament twice (2011 and 2016).
Among the many battles Novak had over the years, the ones with Rafael Nadal always remain special as both the players fight for a point till the end and this aspect alone makes their rivalry so special and different from others.
They both tussled against each other for an astonishing 53 times with Novak leading the race with 28 wins compared to Rafa's 25.
Their semi-final clash in the Madrid Open in 2009 will definitely be rated as one of the best matches every played in the tournament as the match was full of brilliant shot-making, coupled with some equally silly errors from both the players and no one was able to predict the winner of that contest.
With a capacity crowd of around 15,000 people where everyone made their intentions clear by supporting the home hope, Djokovic gave them a heart-break in the first set itself by breaking the first service game of the Spaniard and quickly rose to the top with a 3-0 lead.
Rafa was aggressive back in 2009 as he was young and one could see him sprint like a panther from left to right and searching for right angles to produce an unplayable return for Novak Djokovic.
Along with this aggression, there came errors from his forehand and backhand and this was enough for a defensive player like Novak to steal the set as he won it 6-3.
The second set was where all the drama began as both the players rallied for every point with some heavily induced top-spin exchanges, especially from Rafael Nadal. Djokovic too responded by flattening them either with a backhand down-the-line winner or with a surprising drop shot that proved worthy at times for the Serb.
With each player not willing to lose serve, the second set went for a tiebreaker and Novak had two match points in that tie-breaker before Nadal won it 10-8 and took the match to a decider.
Novak was quick to respond this time as he drew first blood by breaking Rafa's serve at 2-2 and Rafa was agile in giving it back to Novak, thereby leveling the set 3-3. From then on, both the players fought extremely hard to stay on serve and were successful in doing so as even the deciding third set went to a tie-breaker.
Novak was on par with Rafa at every point in the match but when it mattered the most, it was Rafa who stole the thunder from Novak with some mind-boggling tennis. The third set too, had a same ending like the second with Rafa winning the set and the match, 3-6, 7-6(5), 7-6(9).
The match went on for a staggering 4 hours and 2 minutes as the players gave the crowd the entertainment they craved for. If we take a look at the statistics of the match, Nadal hit 31 winners compared with Novak's 36 whereas Novak hit 44 unforced errors compared to Rafa's 51.
As both of them pushed each other to the limits, errors started to flow more from their racquets and it made the match even more exciting as everyone would anticipate with bated breath as to what will happen next and this is the sublime feature of a clay court game.
Novak's inability to identify the crucial moments in the match proved costly for him even though he was the better player on paper between the two and this aspect of Novak's game stopped him from reaching the top during 2008-2010 as the inclusion of Boris Becker sort of filled that gap and the rest is history.
Watch the highlights of that epic match here:
Nadal went on to lose the final to Roger Federer, thereby ending his 33-match winning streak on clay courts and it was Roger's first ATP tour title in 2009. He later won the French Open that year as an injured Rafael Nadal bowed out to Robin Soderling in the fourth round.Published 30 Apr 2019, 03:08 IST