Flashback: Nadal Saves 3 M.P. To Deny Djokovic In 2009 Madrid Classic
Rafael Nadal points to a dose of good fortune in the aftermath of one of his greatest triumphs over one of his greatest rivals, Novak Djokovic, in the Mutua Madrid Open semi-final of 2009. The truth is that Nadal made his own luck that day to save three match points at his home ATP Masters 1000 event at La Caja Magica – 'The Magic Box'.
That relentless will and shot-making when under the pump carried the then-World No. 1 to his seventh straight final of the season, his 13th victory from 17 ATP Head2Head showdowns with the fourth-ranked Serbian and his 33rd straight win on clay. Twelve years on, Djokovic leads their ATP Head2Head ledger 29-27, but this match still stands as one of their greatest.
The Serbian had never beaten his opponent on clay and fell painfully short of dishing out only Nadal’s fifth loss on the surface in 154 matches, before he succumbed in what was the longest three-set match in ATP Masters 1000 history at four hours and three minutes.
Djokovic won more points (125 to 120) and had three opportunities to close out the match at 6/5, 7/6 and 9/8 in the final-set tie-break, before he conceded his fifth straight defeat to Nadal, 3-6, 7-6(5), 7-6(9).
"In a game like that with so many match points I think you need luck to win, there's no doubt about it, but I played with great courage and I think everything went well for me,” Nadal said after his win. “I played the first set poorly, and it looked very bleak for me. But I think that little by little I was able to get my rhythm and ended up playing well.”
Neither player had conceded a set all tournament, but it was the top seed who entered the clash before a boisterous home crowd as a strong favourite. Nadal had made his strongest start to a season in the first five months of 2009, when he picked up his first hard-court major at Melbourne Park over Roger Federer, his fifth hard court Masters 1000 trophy in Indian Wells and was undefeated on clay.
Three times that season he had already gotten the better of Djokovic on the surface – once in a Davis Cup first-round tie and in two Masters 1000 finals at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters and the Internazionali BNL d'Italia in Rome.
Having let slip a 3-1 lead in the deciding set, Djokovic did not fade away quietly. He held a championship point on serve at 6/5 in the tie-break, only to have Nadal fend it off with a whipping forehand into the corner. The Spaniard saved a second with a forehand winner at 6/7 and finally secured victory on his first chance, when the third seed’s searching forehand found the top of the net.
“It's happened too often," Djokovic lamented after the 2009 defeat. “It's very disappointing to play as well as I have and still lose the match. I played one of my best matches ever... I even played a few points above my limits and I still didn't win.”
For all his efforts, Nadal went on to lose to Federer in the final. Two years later, Djokovic gained revenge in Madrid and notched his first win on clay over his Spanish rival in the final.