In 2008, Rafael Nadal finally overcame Roger Federer and became world no. 1 player. The Spaniard dominated clay and grass and played on a high level during the North American hard-court swing, heading to the US Open as the world's best player after winning the Olympic gold medal in Beijing.
After a well-deserved rest and two Davis Cup matches, Rafa was back in action at the home Masters 1000 event in Madrid, hoping to repeat the title run from 2005 (his only indoor hard title in a career) and lift the ninth title of the season.
The Spaniard suffered only one break of serve in the opening three matches against Ernests Gulbis, Richard Gasquet and Feliciano Lopez and was the favorite against Gilles Simon in the semis after winning the first two encounters against the Frenchman.
Simon had to work for every point in the first four matches to set Nadal clash, prevailing against Igor Andreev, Robby Ginepri and Ivo Karlovic in the deciding tie break to find himself in the last four, with another marathon waiting around the corner against world no.
1. In one of the most entertaining matches of the season, Gilles Simon toppled Rafael Nadal 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 in three hours and 23 minutes for the most significant final in a career, performing an impressive comeback to stay on the title course!
Rafa led 6-3, 4-3, 40-30 but wasted a break chance to heat the drama and fell in the closing stages of sets two and three to end on the losing side despite giving 120% against a persistent rival who refused to surrender. Nadal was two points away from victory in the deciding set tie break, but it wasn't to be for him, experiencing one of the toughest losses of the season and missing the opportunity to fight for another Masters 1000 crown.
The Spaniard won three points more than his rival but not the ones that mattered the most, creating 22 break opportunities and converting only five, missing his chances to seal the deal and advance into the final. On the other hand, he had to play against eight break points and gave serve away four times, enough for Gilles to stay in contention and control the scoreboard in the crucial moments of the deciding set.
The match kicked off in Nadal's favor, breaking in the opening game and holding at 15 for 2-0 lead. That gave him confidence, as he served well in the rest of the set and kept the pressure on Simon to convert the fourth set point at 5-3 and clinch the opener in style.
In Madrid 2008, Gilles Simon prevailed over Rafael Nadal in a marathon.
One of the crucial moments of the entire clash occurred in the fourth game of the second set when Simon fended off three break points for a strong hold, staying on the positive side of the scoreboard and keeping his chances alive.
Nadal was in an even better position to move ahead while leading 4-3, netting an easy backhand that proved to be one of the pivotal shots of the encounter. Simon held with an ace to level the score at 4-4 and broke Nadal at love after a costly double fault from the Spaniard.
Serving for the set at 5-4, Gilles got broken after a backhand winner from Nadal, who was in the driving seat again, led by his family and the partisan crowd. The 11th game was one of the longest and most exciting, and Simon proved mentally stronger, fending off Nadal's four game points and breaking for the second time in a row on his third chance.
Serving for the set for the second time, the Frenchman fell 40-15 down before winning four points in a row, sealing the set with a smash winner for 7-5 and more drama after some 70 minutes! Rafa had the opportunity for an early lead in the decider but squandered no less than six break points in game two, unable to strike that final punch.
Simon saved another break chance at 2-3 with a lucky net cord before Rafa finally found the way to break him and move 4-2 up. That wasn't enough to carry him over the finish line, though, with Simon breaking back a few minutes later to stay in touch and build confidence before the final stages of the thrilling contest.
It was Nadal who cracked under pressure first, spraying a forehand error at 5-5 to hand the break to his rival, who was now serving for the place in the final. Gilles also showed signs of nerves, netting an easy forehand to get broken in that 12th game and sending the match into a deciding tie break, the best possible way to determine the winner after such a close battle.
Leading 3-1, Nadal sent a forehand wide, and Simon moved 5-3 up after forcing an error from world no. 1 in the eighth point. Rafa moved back to 5-5 and 6-6, only to suffer another mini-break and push the Frenchman 7-6 in front.
Gilles moved over the top when Rafa's backhand landed long, celebrating one of his best wins ever in a notable season that saw him winning three ATP titles.