The 50th chapter of an outstanding rivalry between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic from Madrid 2017 will not find its place among their greatest encounters but it was a significant one, especially for the Spaniard who defeated the Serb for the first time since Roland Garros 2014!
Nadal beat Djokovic 6-2, 6-4 in an hour and 38 minutes, ending a seven-match losing streak against the mighty Serb who had also won the last 15 sets they played before Madrid. Nadal was the favorite after rattling off 13 consecutive wins on clay and because Djokovic was in the worst form in seven years, unable to fight against Nadal at that moment.
The first set was very one-sided, with Nadal dominating in every segment and doing more than enough in the second to score the first straight-sets triumph over Novak since Rome 2009! The Spaniard was moving great, hitting the ball well from both wings and winning the rallies he had been losing against Djokovic in their previous matches.
As many times that season or since Wimbledon last summer, Novak's strokes were just not there, having no power or depth to drive Nadal away from the comfort zone. The Serb's shot selection was wrong on many points, going from drop shots and finding it hard to change the direction and move Nadal around the baseline or create an open space.
Rafa was excellent, keeping his serve safe almost all the time and stepping in every time he had to win an important point, like that break chance he fended off in the last game of the match. Of course, once Novak managed to find his game in set number two, we saw how hard it is for Rafa to stay at the same pace but he did a great job in overpowering Djokovic in every aspect to bring the encounter home in two sets.
Rafa lost 19 points on serve, playing against only two break points and losing serve once to mount the pressure on the other side of the net. On the other hand, Novak struggled with his initial shot, losing 48% of the points (he won 29 points on serve and 11 were service winner) and facing six break chances.
He managed to save only two of these and his defeat was inevitable when we know all that. Nadal finished the match with 13 service winners, two more than the Serb, also creating an 18-14 advantage in the winners from the field, punching the ball with efficiency from both the forehand and backhand wing.
Djokovic couldn't find his shots, especially in the first part of the match, committing 21 unforced errors and 11 forced. Nadal also started to miss more often as the match progressed but stayed on 15 unforced errors and only seven that Novak forced, which made the difference.
For an illustration, Nadal had only three errors from his backhand while Novak counted to 14, another important reason for this scoreboard! The Spaniard had a 28-22 lead in the shortest points up to four strokes, toppling Novak in the mid-range rallies from five to eight strokes 24-17, where the Serb is usually in the league of his own.
It was 13-9 for Rafa in the longest exchanges and this is another proof of how good he played and how tough it was for Novak to achieve a more positive result. It was a furious start from Nadal who broke at love in the first game with a backhand return winner, holding in game two from 30-0 down after winning a 16-stroke rally and firing three service winners for a 2-0.
Novak dropped his serve once again in game number three, unable to find the rhythm and missing many balls, staying inferior in the exchanges against a determined rival. Things looked better and better for Nadal who held at love in game four, racing into a 4-0 lead after just 17 minutes and taking 17 of the first 21 points!
In those opening four games, Novak was yet to hit a winner from the field, making seven unforced errors instead. Djokovic almost wasted a 40-0 advantage in the fifth game, hitting his first winner of the match and holding after deuce to get his name on the scoreboard.
Rafa went 5-1 in front, picking up another longer rally and closing the game with a service winner, controlling the course of the match completely in those moments. In game seven, Novak saved a set point with a service winner and managed to hold and reduce the deficit to 5-2, starting to play a little bit better and imposing his shots to shake off the pressure from his back.
Nonetheless, he was powerless on return, with Rafa opening the eighth game with two service winners and sealing the set with a beautiful backhand drop shot, taking it 6-2 after some 40 minutes. Nadal had seven service winners, two more than Novak, and a clear lead in the direct points from the field, with 10-4.
Djokovic made 11 unforced errors while Nadal stayed on six, and they both had three forced mistakes. Destructed and absent, Novak opened the second set in the worst manner, adding another four unforced errors to his tally to get broken in the first game, with a mountain to climb if he wanted to turn the tables in this encounter.
Nadal hit three winners in game two to materialize the break and was in the driving seat to bring the match home without any troubles. In game three, we finally saw something more from Novak who landed two service winners and two more from his forehand for his best game since the start of the encounter, gaining a positive boost ahead of the remaining games.
He found a great return winner in game four to dismiss Nadal's game point and took the next two longer exchanges to break the Spaniard for the first and only time, leveling the score at 2-2. A backhand crosscourt worked well for Novak in that game and that was maybe the key for him to put Nadal under even bigger pressure and make him work harder for every point.
Nonetheless, Novak was unable to play at that level all the time, getting broken in the very next game to fall 3-2 behind, in what would be the last break of the match. Nadal confirmed the break with three service winners to open a 4-2 ahead, starting to make more errors than in the opener but still competing on a higher level than Novak.
They both played well on serve in the next three games, with Nadal scoring a crucial hold in game eight at love and serving for the victory at 5-4. He was 40-15 up but Novak fended off both match points with winners, refusing to surrender and earning a break chance that could have changed the course of the clash.
Nadal remained focused, though, repelling it with a great drop shot and closing the match two points later after another good attack, celebrating his first win over Novak in almost three years and moving just one victory away from his 30th Masters 1000 crown.
In set number two, they both fired six service winners but Novak raised his level from the field, with ten winners against eight for Nadal. The Serb made just one unforced error more than his rival, 10-9, but forced errors were again on Nadal's side, hitting four and drawing eight from Djokovic.