In June 2008, Rafael Nadal won the fourth consecutive Roland Garros crown, dropping only four games against Roger Federer in the title match to extend his Paris dominance. That was hardly news anymore, but what did change in comparison to the previous years is that Rafa managed to carry the form into the grass and hard courts.
The Spaniard claimed the first title on the fastest surface at Queen's, prevailing against Novak Djokovic in the final before conquering the first Wimbledon crown a few weeks later in that memorable final against Roger Federer that lasted for almost five hours.
Three weeks after that, the Spaniard lifted the trophy in Toronto for the fifth straight title starting from Hamburg, becoming a genuine contender for the ATP throne that had been kept by Roger Federer since 2004. Rafa didn't have too much time to celebrate his Canada crown, heading towards Mason, Ohio, to compete at Cincinnati Masters, looking for a more reliable run than in the previous years at one of the fastest events in the calendar.
This time, Nadal had a favorable draw and defeated Florent Serra, Tommy Haas, and Nicolas Lapennti to advance into the semi-final where he faced world no. 3 Novak Djokovic. It was already the 13th meeting between these two youngsters and Nadal had won the previous nine, including triumphs in Hamburg, Roland Garros and Queen's in the last months.
Still, the Serb ousted Nadal in March in Indian Wells and had his chances in Cincinnati, as a much better player on the fast hard court than the Spaniard. Djokovic delivered a rock-solid performance to topple Nadal 6-1, 7-5 in an hour and 26 minutes, ending the Spaniard's career-best streak of 32 consecutive victories!
It has to be said that Nadal had already secured to replace Federer at the top of the ATP rankings on August 18. Still, he evidently wanted to stay on the winning path and add the title he was missing in his collection, only to be denied by a strong rival who did enough to overpower him in straight sets.
Djokovic struggled to find the first serve, especially in the first set.
Still, there was nothing wrong with his initial shot, overpowering the great rival from the baseline with aggressive and deep groundstrokes that left Nadal without an answer.
Novak took the ball early to keep the points on his racquet and had a clear edge in the rallies up to six shots (48-36), forcing short exchanges and not letting Nadal extending the action and imposing his strokes. The Serb grabbed 19 out of 25 points on the second serve, the element that made all the difference, facing only one break chance in the entire encounter and keeping all the pressure on the other side of the net.
On the other hand, Nadal offered four break points to the Serb and saved just one, unable to send the match into a decider after getting broke three times. Rafa raised his level significantly in the second set, although he fell short in the closing stages to suffer his first defeat since the beginning of May and Rome!
Novak kicked off the encounter with a hold at love and broke Nadal in the second game without losing a point, returning well and taking time off from the Spaniard's shots. At 0-3, Nadal hit a double fault to give another break chance to his rival, allowing Novak to move 4-0 up with a forehand down the line winner.
Djokovic's groundstrokes were on fire in those moments, nailing another backhand winner that sent him 5-0 in front in no time at all, demolishing Rafa from the baseline and keeping everything under control. The Spaniard finally got his name on the scoreboard in game six before Djokovic sealed the opening set with another reliable hold for a 6-1 after 26 minutes.
The Serb lost only a couple of points behind the initial shot despite landing only 45% of the first serve in, hitting ten winners and leaving Nadal on just two. Rafa started to play better in the second set, finding some fantastic winners and holding easier than in the first part of the clash to make the scoreboard more interesting.
Also, Novak sprayed more errors, offering Rafa a break opportunity in game six after a loose forehand. The Serb saved it with a good forehand attack in an 18-stroke rally and leveled the score at 3-3 with two service winners, refusing to fall behind and give the momentum to his opponent.
Rafa held at love in games seven and nine to keep the pressure on Novak who stayed focused in those crucial moments, finding some good returns at 5-5 to break Rafa at 15 and open up a 6-5 gap. Serving for the victory in the next game, Novak fired three winners to wrap up the encounter and reach his Cincinnati final after winning just one match in the previous three trips to Ohio, ending Nadal's incredible streak that had been alive for more than two and a half months.