Chasing the first Madrid Open title since 2017, Rafael Nadal faced the young Aussie Alexei Popyrin in the third round last year. It was their first meeting, and Alexei was ready to produce his best tennis and challenge the 20-time Major winner.
Popyrin won the first seven points to show his fighting spirit before Nadal recovered his game. Rafa earned a 6-3, 6-3 victory in 79 minutes for a place in the quarters. Recalling the match, Alexei said that Rafa changed his tactics after losing the opening seven points, targeting his backhand and taking advantage in the exchanges.
Popyrin stayed aggressive from start to finish, landing 20 winners and the same number of unforced errors. At the same time, Rafa stood on an 11-15 ratio. The Spaniard did more damage with his initial shot and controlled the pace in the shortest and mid-range rallies.
Nadal fended off five out of six break points in the opener and stole Popyrin's serve four times to move into the next round. The Aussie held at love in the opening game and created three break chances in the next one to gain a boost.
Nadal repelled them and closed the game with a service winner to avoid an early setback. Alexei lost the ground a bit and hit a double fault in game three to fall behind. Rafa held at 30 with another powerful serve to open a 3-1 gap and settle into a fine rhythm.
The youngster sprayed a backhand mistake in the fifth game to experience another break before finding the rhythm on the return and reducing the deficit to 4-2. Nadal grabbed another break at 5-3 to wrap up the opener in 42 minutes.
Alexei Popyrin lost to Rafael Nadal in the Madrid Open third round last year.
The Spaniard fired a forehand down the line winner at the beginning of the second set and placed another in game two to break at love. Nadal confirmed the lead with a service winner in game three and held at 15 with a perfect backhand crosscourt winner for 4-1.
Alexei served great after that initial break and produced excellent holds in games four, six and eight to remain within one break deficit. Rafa closed the seventh game with a powerful forehand and moved over the top with a hold at 15 at 5-3, securing the quarter-final berth for the 11th time at Caja Magica.
"Rafa did not do anything special throughout the match. In the middle of the first set, I thought I had to do more than I did, which caused mistakes. I gifted him the match, but I chalk this down to experience. I will learn from it; he is one of the greatest of all time.
I won those first seven points, and Rafa completely changed his tactics, hitting loopy balls to the backhand and trying to pressure me, which worked for him. Next time we play, I will not fall into that trap and will focus on what I have to do and try not to blast him off the court with every shot. I learned I should not be scared to rally with him," Alexei Popyrin said.