Following tough losses against Fabio Fognini and Dominic Thiem in the semi-final in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, the four-time Caja Magica champion Rafael Nadal has suffered another blow in front of the home crowd, losing to Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-4, 2-6, 6-3.
The young Greek is through to his second Masters 1000 final (Nadal ousted him in Toronto last summer) after a grueling battle and two hours and 34 minutes, winning six points less than Rafa and saving 11 out of 16 break points to stay alive against the mighty opponent.
Nadal served at 73% but that brought him nothing, facing 14 break points after barely losing a point behind the initial shot against Wawrinka last night, unable to overpower the young opponent who did everything right in sets he won.
Stefanos sprayed almost 30 forehand unforced errors but managed to tame his shots and deliver 32 winners, leaving Nadal on a 28-31 ratio which wasn't enough for the triumph. Nothing could separate them in the shortest and most extended exchanges and Stefanos won the battle in those rallies between five and eight shots, returning well and keeping his backhand safe to find the way towards the finish line and deliver one of his best wins.
The opening set lasted for almost an hour, pushing each other to the limits and offering each other 13 break chances. At 4-4, Stefanos grabbed a pivotal break, saving a break point in the next game to seal the first part of the match and boost confidence ahead of the rest of the encounter.
Nadal delivered his best tennis in set number two, outplaying the opponent completely for a 6-2 after rattling off the last four games and looking like the favorite in the deciding set. Instead of that, Stefanos found the range on the return again, sending deep balls and keeping the points on his racquet with bold tennis that secured three consecutive breaks for him, converting the fourth match point at 5-3 to book the title clash with Novak Djokovic on Sunday.
"Yes, it was one of the best matches I played all my life. Players like Nadal who play with your mental game as well, they rely a lot on your mental ability and the way you are going to test you every single time. You always feel like you have to play the best shot, make the best approach, so players like Rafa are very difficult to face and I would record it as my best victory and the toughest match I had up to this day.
I remember this very well last year, Rome, which is a week from now. I didn't have the best results in Madrid and Rome last year but this year I became more experienced. What has changed? I'm more experienced, more fit and experience plays a huge role in the way you are going to play.
A more courageous Stefanos with more guts and mentally much tougher than I was the year before. I made a promise after I did well in Miami that I'm going to play all the Masters 1000 series events in doubles. These are the only tournaments that I'll play doubles at, no Grand Slams, no 500s or 250s.
So I have to commit, but also, as you said, like fatigue is also important and it's going to play a huge role before the French Open. I'm going to try to adapt to that. As I mentioned previously, I feel much fitter than last year.
Having some doubles on clay is nice. People find it difficult, but I think it's helped me a lot also in my singles, my volleys have improved actually by playing doubles. I feel much more confident coming to the net. So they are the small things that doubles have provided to me."