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Nadal Saves 3 M.P. Against Djokovic in SFs

Madrid, Spain

Rafael Nadal© Getty Images

Spaniard Rafael Nadal proved just why he is so hard to beat on clay Saturday, when he saved three match points in a dramatic final-set tie-break to beat Novak Djokovic of Serbia 3-6, 7-6(5), 7-6(9) in four hours and three minutes for a spot in the Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open final. It is believed to be the longest best-of-three sets singles match on the ATP World Tour in the Open Era (since 1968).

Nadal will take a 25-1 career record in clay-court finals into Sunday's title-match against World No. 2 Roger Federer of Switzerland, who beat Juan Martin del Potro in the other semi-final. It will be the pair's first meeting since the Australian Open in January. 

Nadal, the reigning ATP World Tour Champion is now just one victory away from completing the clean sweep of ATP World Tour Masters 1000 clay-court titles in one season.

It was the first time Nadal had played a third set tie-break on clay since 11 July 2003, when he lost to Nicolas Lapentti at Bastad, Sweden. It was Nadal’s fifth straight victory over Djokovic and the third time in the past five weeks he had beaten the Serbian (also ATP World Tour Masters 1000 Monte-Carlo and Rome finals).

Nadal improved to 37-3 lifetime against Top 10 opponents on clay, including 30-1 while in the Top 10 on clay. His only loss while in the Top 10 came to then No.1-ranked Roger Federer in the Hamburg final in May 2007.

The 22-year-old Nadal extended his winning streak on clay courts to 33 matches and to 150-4 on his favoured surface since 2005. He improved to 27-1 lifetime in ATP World Tour clay-court semi-finals and to 19-0 on clay this year. His last loss on red dirt was against compatriot and former World No. 1/Roland Garros champion Juan Carlos Ferrero on May 7, 2008 in the second round of ATP World Tour Masters 1000 Rome.

Nadal leads the ATP World Tour circuit this year with a 41-3 match record that includes five titles. By beating Djokovic in the Madrid semi-finals he has denied his Serbian rival the change to return to No. 3 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings next week.

"In a game like that with so many match points I think you need luck to win a match like that," explained Nadal. "There’s no doubt about it but I played with great courage and I think everything went well for me.

"I played the first set poorly; it looked very bleak to me. Here with the altitude it was very hard for me to hit the ball with confidence, I was always coming up short, I wasn’t getting the distance right. But I think that little by little I was able to get my rhythm and I ended up playing well.

"That’s why I felt that emotional with the public, with what happened in the game. The public really helped me and supported me and I don’t have any words to thank them for this final they helped me reach."

Djokovic, who turns 22 on 22 May, had the better of the opening exchanges and led Nadal 3-0 – courtesy of a service break in the second game. The third seed managed to maintain his advantage, winning 20 of 26 service points to take the first set in 51 minutes.

Djokovic’s fluency continued in the second set, but he was left to rue missed opportunities for service breaks in the third and ninth games. Nadal managed to fight off another break point in an 11-minute game for a 6-5 lead and went on to create his first break point opportunity, a set point, in the next game. With Djokovic approaching the net, Nadal was rushed into a backhand error and the second set was decided on a tie-break.

Nadal maintained his record of never losing a tie-break against Djokovic to level the score line at one-set apiece after two hours and 30 minutes of play. Nadal had hit nine winners and 21 unforced errors, while Djokovic went 0/4 on break points opportunities in the one-hour and 37-minute second set.

Djokovic regained his composure to open up a 3-1 lead, after breaking Nadal in the fourth game. But Nadal responded with an immediate service break of his own. Djokovic received treatment for a right knee injury and muscle fatigue after the fifth game at the change of ends. The pair’s 18th career meeting went with serve to a tie-break, which many spectators on the Manolo Santana Court at the Caja Magica could not bear to watch.

Djokovic created his first match point when he hit a forehand winner for a 6-5 lead, but he could not capitalise on the chance as Nadal hit a forehand winner down the line from a long baseline rally. A second match point went begging on a Nadal second serve at 7-6, when Nadal wrong-footed Djokovic with a series of forehands before hitting the winning forehand stroke on approach to the net.

Nadal’s first match point came and went at 8-7. Djokovic hit a nerveless forehand winner, having hit a second serve to Nadal’s forehand, for his third match point at 9-8 after four hours of play. Nadal gritted his teeth once again, and urged on by his compatriots was able to recover to 10-9 courtesy of a Djokovic forehand in the net and a forehand winner down the line.  Nadal seized control of his second match point by forcing Djokovic out wide to lunge for a forehand, which landed in the net. Nadal has now won 31 sets to 13 for Djokovic in their 18 career meetings.

"I’m very disappointed that I can play this well and still not win a match," said Djokovic. "I’ve think that I’ve played my best tennis on this surface. A couple of points decided the winner."

Nadal hit 31 winners and committed 50 unforced errors in total. The top seed hit three aces and four double faults. He converted one of two break point opportunities and won nine of 14 points at the net. Djokovic, by comparison, had struck 37 winners, committed 43 unforced errors, hit six aces and three double faults, and converted two of eight break point opportunities.
Djokovic was making his fourth straight appearance at the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 clay-court tennis tournament (9-4 record). He also reached the semi-finals in 2007 (l. to Nalbandian).

This year the Monte-Carlo resident has captured two ATP World Tour titles at Dubai (d. Ferrer) and Belgrade (d. Kubot). He has also finished runner-up at ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournaments in Miami (l Murray), Monte-Carlo (l. to Nadal) and Rome (l. to Nadal)

The World No. 4 was attempting to reach his fifth straight final and sixth overall. He dropped to a 37-11 record on the 2009 ATP World Tour season.

Djokovic said: "I'm taking positives [from] the last couple of matches we've played on this surface and the positives are that I'm one point away from the victory. I don't know, next time I’ll probably take two rackets on the match point. I don’t know what to do."

Spanish superstar Nadal captured his sixth Grand Slam championship trophy at the Australian Open (d. Federer) in January and has since clinched further trophies at Barcelona and ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournaments in Indian Wells (d. Murray), Monte-Carlo and Rome, (d. Djokovic both times).

The Mallorca native is making his seventh appearance in Madrid (16-5 record) and will look win the 37th title of his career in Sunday’s final. He won the Madrid title in 2005 (d. Ljubicic).


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