Spending three years as world no. 2 behind Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal finally moved in front of the Swiss in the summer of 2008, conquering the ATP throne for the first time. Playing with a massive boost and confidence, the Spaniard was the player to beat in the first part of the 2009 season, winning the Australian Open, Indian Wells, Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome before heading to Madrid for the first Masters 1000 event on clay in his country.
Since the beginning of the year, Nadal had lost only three encounters and barely escaped the fourth defeat against Novak Djokovic in the semi-final of Madrid, prevailing 3-6, 7-6, 7-6 in four hours and three minutes after saving three match points, in what has been one of the longest best-of-three encounters in the history of the game!
It was the 19th straight victory for Nadal on clay in 2009 (150-4 since 2005) and his 27th victory in 28 ATP semi-finals on clay, performing at his best in the closing stages of the tournaments to add numerous titles to his tally.
Also, Rafa defeated Novak in 14 out of 18 matches and this was their closest battle in the early years of the great rivalry they forged in 2006. The Serb was there to challenge Rafa in all three biggest tournaments during the clay swing, previously losing in the final of Monte Carlo and Rome and giving his best to finally notch a win over the Spaniard on the slowest surface, performing better on both serve and return and winning five points more than the four-time Roland Garros champion.
Djokovic played against only two break chances in the entire clash and had eight break opportunities on the return, converting two which wasn't enough to carry him home. Novak had more winners and fewer errors, beating Rafa in the most extended rallies but falling short in the deciding tie break to suffer one of the most heartbreaking defeats in a career.
It was a shaky start from Nadal who hit a double fault in game two to drop serve, facing troubles at 0-3 as well before delivering two service winners to get his name on the board. Djokovic had a clear advantage behind the initial shot, holding once with ease in game five to move 4-1 ahead, placing his strokes correctly and moving Nadal around the court.
The Spaniard held after another deuce in game six and had to save a break chance at 2-5 with a forehand crosscourt winner to stay in touch and force Novak to serve for the set. Djokovic was in a powerful rhythm on serve, bringing the set home with a hold at 15 after 50 minutes, looking strong to grab his first triumph over Rafa on clay.
The Serb moved closer to the finish line with a break opportunity in game three of the second set that Nadal repelled with a service winner to notch another significant hold and keep himself in contention. Both players held with ease in the next five games and Rafa had to face an ultimate test at 4-4 when Novak created two break chances.
Standing on the verge of the defeat, Nadal blasted two service winners and brought the game home after another one to stay ahead and open a 5-4 advantage. More troubles were waiting for the Spaniard just around the corner, as Djokovic had another break point at 5-5, denied by a good serve from Nadal who survived after 11 minutes to hang in there.
Novak had to play against the very first break chance at 5-6 (two hours and 12 minutes since the beginning of the match) and saved it with a backhand down the line that forced an error from Rafa, setting up a tie break and keeping the pressure on his opponent who had no room for mistakes.
With his back pushed against the wall, Nadal delivered his most excellent tennis in the tie break, taking every point on serve and scoring a mini-break at 3-2 with a forehand winner, blasting a service winner to grab the breaker 7-5 and send the encounter into a decider after almost two and a half hours!
The Serb kept fighting, creating two break opportunities in game four of the final set, converting the second one with a forehand winner to build a 3-1 lead and move closer to the finish line. Out of sudden, Rafa broke back immediately to reduce the deficit to 3-2 when Novak missed a forehand and the battle was on once again after a forehand down the line winner from the Spaniard in game six that leveled the score at 3-3.
Djokovic struggled with his second serve but managed to hold before reaching two deuces on the return a few minutes later that could have delivered the crucial lead for him. Nadal overwhelmed the danger and held after a deuce in game 12 to set up a deciding tie break, the best possible way to decide the winner of this outstanding clash of titans.
Novak forced a backhand error from Rafa at 5-5 to earn the first match point and had his chances to close the match before Nadal landed a forehand down the line winner, leveling the score at 6-6 for more drama. Djokovic had another match point up for grabs after a grueling rally but Nadal was not to be denied, erasing it with another forehand winner to survive a scare and stay on the positive side of the scoreboard.
Novak fended off a match point at 7-8 with a forehand winner and a service winner offered him the third match point at 9-8, hoping for that one last push that would carry him over the top. Rafa repelled it with a service winner and cracked a forehand down the line winner to earn his second match point at 10-9, building momentum in the decisive moments of the entire encounter.
He forced an error from Novak in that 18th point to seal the deal and celebrate one of the most significant victories ever in front of the partisan crowd that carried him throughout the match and helped him to pass one of the hardest obstacles he ever faced on his beloved surface.
As was expected, Nadal had nothing left in the tank for the Sunday's final meeting against Roger Federer after these four hours of incredible tennis, losing 6-4, 6-4 to hand the first Caja Magica title to the Swiss.