Rafael Nadal became world no. 1 in August 2008 and grabbed a massive boost at the beginning of the next season. Rafa won 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.
Nadal had lost only three encounters that year, and he had to give his 120% to avoid the fourth in Madrid's semi-final, prevailing over Novak Djokovic 3-6, 7-6, 7-6 in four hours and three minutes after saving three match points!
It was Nadal's 19th straight victory on clay in 2009 and his 27th victory in 28 ATP semi-finals on clay, overpowering the mighty opponent in one of the longest three-setters ever. Nadal had beaten Djokovic in the Monte Carlo and Rome finals, and Novak was ready to give his everything and finally notch a win over the Spaniard on the slowest surface.
Djokovic won five points more and played against only two break chances in the entire clash, with eight break opportunities up for grabs and two return games on his tally. 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.
Nadal made a shaky start after hitting a double fault in game two to drop serve, facing troubles at 0-3 before delivering two service winners to get his name on the board. Djokovic had a clear advantage behind the initial shot early on, holding with ease in game five to move 4-1 ahead and placing his strokes precisely to move Nadal around the court.
The Spaniard held after another deuce in game six and saved a set point at 2-5 with a forehand crosscourt winner that kept him in touch and forced Novak to serve for the set. Djokovic was in a powerful rhythm in his games, bringing the set home with a hold at 15 after 50 minutes and looking strong to grab his first triumph over Rafa on clay.
The Serb moved closer to the finish line with a break opportunity in the second set's third game 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 defeat, the home favorite blasted two service winners and brought the game home after another to stay ahead and open a 5-4 advantage.
Rafael Nadal needed over four hours to overpower Novak Djokovic in 2009 Madrid SF.
More troubles were waiting for the Spaniard just around the corner, as Djokovic had another break chance at 5-5.
Nadal denied it with a good serve and brought the game home 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 Rafa's error and set a tie break where the pressure was on his opponent.
With his back pushed against the wall, Nadal delivered his most excellent tennis, taking every point on serve and scoring a mini-break at 3-2 with a forehand winner. The home favorite blasted 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 and created two break opportunities in the final set's game four, converting the second with a forehand winner to build a 3-1 lead and move closer to the finish line. Out of a sudden, Rafa broke back immediately to reduce the deficit when Novak sprayed a forehand error.
The battle was alive and kicking after the Spaniard's forehand down the line winner in game six that leveled the score at 3-3 and brought more drama. Djokovic struggled with his second serve but held before reaching two deuces on the return a few minutes later that could have delivered the crucial lead for him.
Nadal overcame the danger and held after deuce in game 12 to set up a deciding tie break, the best way to determine the winner of this great clash of titans. Novak forced Rafa's backhand error at 5-5 to earn the first match point and had his chances to seal the deal before Nadal landed a forehand down the line winner to level the score at 6-6.
Djokovic produced another match point after a grueling rally, with Nadal erasing it after another forehand winner and staying 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 the third match point for him 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 encounter's decisive moments. He forced Novak's error in that 18th point to seal the deal and celebrate in front of the partisan crowd that helped him pass one of the most challenging obstacles he ever faced on his beloved surface.