Saturday, May 16, 2009

Magic in the Magic Box: Nadal outlasts Djokovic in Epic Struggle

Madrid: Rafael Nadal d. Novak Djokovic, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (9)

I sneered when I heard that Madrid was, like most of the other Masters 1000 events, dubbing itself as the "5th Slam." But trust me on this one: I sneer no more.

La Caja Magica delivered a jewel of a tennis match today, and if the inaugural year of the event is any indication, this might indeed be the Masters 1000 event that really does deserve to make the claim.

The state of the art 12,500 seat venue was electrified by the longest match in the history of the Masters Series, a 4 hour and 2 minute display of breathtaking tennis, in which both players played some of the most exquisite tennis of the 2009 campaign.

The rallies were so regularly filled with improbably unfathomable shot making that at times I found myself wondering if there has ever been a better match played on clay. It bodes well for today's loser, regardless of the eventual outcome of the match. Novak Djokovic has gone on a mission this spring, and we as tennis fans ought to be thankful for that.

There has not been another player that has amounted to anything more than a mere fly on the windshield of Rafael Nadal's rapidly moving semi-truck of a clay court season. If it weren't for Novak Djokovic's commitment to his fitness and his hunger to reprove himself as a legitimate contender for Slams, this spring would have been nothing more than a Nadal target practice.

Even though he remains winless against Nadal on the clay, there is a very nifty story line developing in front of Roland Garros now. Djokovic has emerged as a threat (if there is such a thing) to the King of Clay's Parisian Monarchy.

What Djokovic did today in defeat is even more impressive considering the regular criticism that the Serb has received regarding his fitness level. Negativity and doubt was palpable after his unsuccessful roller coaster ride in the heat in Miami, where he lost to Andy Murray in the Masters final. In a match that it looked like he could have won if he had been able to catch his breath, Djokovic ended up getting blown of the court by the Scot - to many it was clear that fitness was the determining factor in the match.

But today we saw a different Djokovic. He was calm and determined, his hard work with recently hired fitness guru Gebhard Phil-Gritsch obviously paying off. Signs of fatigue did eventually emerge, but even then Djokovic seemed to abate his suffering by reaching deeper into his core of belief. Even though his ranking has dropped to world No. 4, this is the best tennis that Djokovic has played since his Australian Open win in January of 2008.

The King of Clay: That being said, we mustn't forget that until he's knocked off his throne, Rafa Nadal is the reigning King of Clay. For that reason, the story of what very may well be the best match of 2009 (it is already being compared to Nadal v. Verdasco the A.O. Semis this year), begins and ends with the Spaniard.

In the face of heavy artillery fire from Djokovic, the surly Mallorcan dug into his trench behind the baseline and made sure that his presence was felt. When Nadal faced a double break point at 4-4 in the 2nd set, it was he who willed himself to consecutive service winners to get to deuce. When he was down a break point at 5-5, again he was basically facing a match point. Again he delivered a service winner.

While it wasn't his most flawless endeavor (he committed the most un-Nadal-like double fault in the third set), or his most dominant, at the conclusion of the match, after facing three match points and three others that were all but match points, it was Nadal, covered in clay, tossing his wrist bands into the adoring throngs of supporters in the building.

One for the ages: The tennis was so phenomenal that it's hard to believe that anyone lost. It was such a well-played match, chess-like yet grueling - a clinic. The way Djokovic and Nadal popped the ball today - with total control, focus, precision, and gusto - is the stuff of tennis dreams. This was tennis nirvana, gift-wrapped in a Magic Box.

At 5-5 in the third set there was a frenzied exuberance that filtered through the crowd. Even if the best tennis had already been played it wouldn't have mattered. La Caja Magica was booming, sound spilling from every orifice of the cleverly constructed tennis palace.

The third set tiebreaker took it to another level. Djokovic's valiant attempt to steal the match was met with every inch of Rafa's steel will...3 match points were courageously exterminated and the salacious crowd erupted as Rafa finally closed it out.

While it is difficult to know where this match will stand in the annals of Masters history, it's hard to imagine it not being considered worthy of classic status. If the Slam's can provide the type of drama that we witnessed today, tennis fans will be counting their blessings as 2009 unfolds.


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