Back in 2008, Rafael Nadal had finally managed to overcome Roger Federer and become world number 1, dominating on clay and grass and playing on a high level during the North American hard court swing and heading to the US Open as the best player in the world after winning the Olympic gold medal in Beijing.
After a well-deserved rest and two Davis Cup matches played, Rafa was back in action at home Masters 1000 event in Madrid, hoping to repeat the title run from 2005 (his only indoor hard title in a career) and lift the ninth title of the season.
Rafa suffered only one break of serve in the opening three matches against Ernests Gulbis, Richard Gasquet and Feliciano Lopez and he was the favorite against Gilles Simon in the semis after winning the first two encounters against the Frenchman.
Simon had to work for every point in the first four matches just to set Nadal clash, prevailing against Igor Andreev, Robby Ginepri and Ivo Karlovic in the deciding tie break to enter the semis and there was another marathon waiting around the corner around the world's leading player.
In one of the most entertaining matches of the entire season, Gilles Simon toppled Rafael Nadal 3-6 7-5 7-6 in three hours and 23 minutes for the biggest final in a career! Rafa led 6-3 4-3 40-30 but he wasted that break point to heat up the drama and he fell in the closing stages of sets two and three to end on the losing side despite giving his 120% against a persistent rival who just refused to surrender.
Nadal was two points away from victory in the deciding set tie break but it wasn't to be for him, experiencing one of the toughest losses of the season. The Spaniard won three points more than his rival but not the ones that mattered the most, creating 22 break chances but converting only five to plague his chances and the opportunity to close the match earlier and with the better outcome.
On the other hand, he offered eight chances to Simon and Gilles converted four, enough to stay in contention and control the scoreboard in the crucial moments of the deciding set. The match kicked off in Nadal's favor, breaking in the opening game of the match and holding at 15 in game two for a 2-0 lead.
That gave him the confidence and he served well in the rest of the set, keeping the pressure on Gilles and converting the fourth set point at 5-3 to clinch the opener in style. One of the crucial moments of the entire match occurred in the fourth game of the second set when Simon fends off three break points for an important hold and staying on the positive side of the scoreboard.
Nadal had an even better chance to move ahead while leading 4-3 but he netted an easy backhand that proved to be one of the pivotal shots of the encounter. Simon held with an ace to level the score at 2-2 and he broke Nadal at love in the ninth game after a costly double fault from the Spaniard in the following game.
Serving for the set at 5-4, Gilles got broken after a backhand winner from Nadal who was in the driving seat again, led by his family and partisan crowd. The 11th game was one of the longest and most interesting and Simon was mentally stronger once again, fending off four game points that Nadal had and breaking for the second time in a row on his third chance.
Serving for the set for the second time, the Frenchman fell 40-15 down before winning four points in a row, sealing the set with a smash winner for a 7-5 and more drama after some 70 minutes! The Spaniard had the opportunity for an early lead in the decider but he squandered no less than six break points in game two, unable to strike that final punch.
Simon saved another break point at 2-3 with a lucky net cord but Rafa finally found the way to break him and move 4-2 up. That wasn't enough to carry him over the finish line, though, with Simon breaking back in the next game to stay in touch and build the confidence before the final stages of the thrilling contest.
It was Nadal who cracked under the pressure first, spraying a forehand error in game 11 to hand the break to his rival who was now serving for the place in the final. Gilles showed signs of nerves as well in those moments, netting an easy forehand to get broken in that 12th game and send the match into a deciding tie break which was the best possible way to determine the winner after such a close battle.
Leading 3-1, Nadal sent a forehand wide and Simon moved 5-3 up after forcing an error from world number 1 in the eighth point. Rafa moved back to 5-5 and 6-6 but Simon earned another mini-break in the 13th point, sealing the deal when Rafa's backhand landed long, celebrating one of his best wins ever in the season that saw him winning three ATP titles.