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Rafa Reigns: How The Madrid Final Was Won

Madrid, Spain

Nadal© Getty ImagesRafael Nadal won his third title of the season and 27th at the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 level.

Top seed Rafael Nadal overcame World No. 12 Kei Nishikori 2-6, 6-4, 3-0, ret. in Sunday’s Mutua Madrid Open final, capturing his fourth title in the Spanish capital.

The four-time champion in Madrid, Nadal was competing in his 90th final, won a 27th crown at the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 level. The Spaniard moved into solo sixth place on the all-time tour-level titles list with 63, pulling to within one of Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras.

Nishikori was competing in his first Masters 1000 final and was looking to complete a title sweep of all three ATP World Tour levels in 2014. The Japanese, who will become the first man from his country to ascend to the Top 10 in the Emirates ATP Rankings on Monday, prevailed at the ATP World Tour 250 level in Memphis and on the 500 stage in Barcelona.

Nadal improved his dominant FedEx ATP Head2Head advantage to 7-0 against Nishikori, having now won 17 of 19 sets played. Their previous meeting was a tightly-contested fourth round affair at this year’s Australian Open, won by the Mallorca native 7-6(3), 7-5, 7-6(3). Nishikori rallied from 1-4 down in the third set and served for it at 5-4, but was unable to force a fourth.

Here is how the final unfolded.

FIRST SET – Nishikori 6-2

The Spanish faithful flooded into the Caja Magica to see their native son vie for a fourth title in his home capital with Nishikori looking to conjure a magic trick of his own, on the doorstep of the biggest match of his young career.

In their most recent meeting at the Australian Open, Nishikori pushed Nadal to the brink in each set behind a high-risk, hyper-aggressive brand of tennis. The Japanese executed the necessary patterns to rattle Nadal with great depth and variety on his groundstrokes, shortening points with first-strike tennis, but came up short in the end.

“He played very aggressively and he went for his shots,” Nadal said after the match in Melbourne. “He came on court with the determination to take the ball very early and go for winners.”

Maintaining a high first-serve percentage against Nadal becomes even more critical on clay and Nishikori would enter Sunday’s showdown with that mindset. On the heels of a near-three hour thriller against David Ferrer in the semi-finals, he refused to succumb to the World No. 1 physically, using his speed to earn an early break.

Nadal would win the first six points of the match, infiltrating Nishikori’s defence behind a relentless forehand attack, but the Shimane native settled in, staving off a break point early and snatching a break of his own in the third game.

Two forehand errors and a double fault by Nadal gave the 24-year-old Nishikori a pair of break points and he would convert on his second following a spectacular rally, capped by a twisting backhand smash at the net.

Nishikori continued to attack with his backhand as the set progressed, having enjoyed success off his preferred wing in Melbourne firing 13 winners.

The Japanese extended his advantage with a second break of serve for 4-1, teeing off on a second serve from Nadal to secure it with the return winner.

Nishikori drained Nadal’s rhythm and pace off the ground as the set wore on, resulting in an uncharacteristic 12 unforced errors to just two winners. He would claim the set in 36 minutes, firing an ace down the T to seal it.

SECOND SET – Nadal 6-4

Nishikori continued to pellet Nadal’s defence with backhand after backhand in the second set, ripping it cross-court to the Spaniard’s forehand and drawing errors.

He kept his foot on the gas with a break to love in the first game and dug deep from a 0/40 deficit in the second, holding in spectacular fashion. The boisterous partisan Spanish crowd was hushed to a murmur as Nishikori grinded past Nadal in extended rallies, dictating play from the baseline.

His transition game mirrored that of the King of Clay, turning defence into offence in a blink, sending passing shots behind Nadal with his forehand and crunching backhand line-clippers.

But the Man from Mallorca would not go away quietly, smelling blood when Nishikori requested a visit from the trainer for his back after the seventh game.

In a dramatic turn of events, Nadal found a second gear as a physically hampered Nishikori immediately conceded a break of serve to level the set. His movement suddenly compromised, the Bradenton, Florida resident allowed Nadal to rediscover his groove and when he powered a backhand beyond the baseline the World No. 1 secured the second set.

THIRD SET – Nadal 3-0, ret.

Nishikori turned in a valiant effort in the third set, fighting through apparent pain for three games. The Michael Chang and Dante Bottini pupil was forced to retire during the 3-0 changeover, however, in an unfortunate conclusion to a riveting battle.

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