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By Richard Pagliaro | Saturday, May 13, 2017

Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal drilled defending champion Novak Djokovic, 6-2, 6-4, snapping a seven-match slide to his rival in rolling into the Madrid final.

Photo credit: Mutua Madrid Open

Pulverizing a slashing strike down the line, Rafael Nadal sent Novak Djokovic slipping and sliding behind the baseline for a defensive stab.

Dripping a drop shot like a dab of yellow paint on a red clay canvas, Nadal ended a streak of futility with subtle finesse and a clenched fist.

Watch: Nadal and Goffin Play Best Game of the Year

Set point symbolized this Madrid Open semifinal: Nadal brushed the defending champion aside with ardor and artistry.

Fueled by an ignominious seven match losing streak to his rival, Nadal drilled Djokovic, 6-2, 6-4, soaring into his sixth final in eight tournaments this season.

"I think I played a really good first set," Nadal said. "The second set I was a little bit more nervous. I played a little bit shorter. I think then the match was a little bit more even.

"Finally I managed to win it. It's a very important victory. It gives me the possibility to play another final and to continue in a positive line. I am happy the way I played today, being able to make it to the final once again. I'll try to be 100 percent and ready for tomorrow's match."

The four-time Madrid champion snapped a 15-set losing streak to the Serbian defeating Djokovic for the first time since the 2014 Roland Garros final.

Crunching his forehand with ambition, Nadal ravaged the reigning Roland Garros champion’s serve converting four of six break points and winning 10 of 17 points played on the Serbian’s second serve. Djokovic picked up his play in the second set, but hurt his cause committing 24 unforced errors, including several from the forehand side.

"Rafa was obviously a better player today," Djokovic told the media in Madrid. "He deserved to win. I mean, he was controlling the game from beginning to the end.

"But, you know, all in all, I did try my best. It wasn't a very high quality of tennis from my side. I mean, I made a lot of unforced errors, especially first set."

Advancing to his 45th career Masters final, Nadal will face Dominic Thiem in tomorrow's final that's a rematch of the Barcelona final, which Nadal won 6-4, 6-1.

The eighth-seeded Thiem did not face a break point dispatching 31-year-old Pablo Cuevas, 6-4, 6-4, in the day's final match. Nadal has won three of their four meetings though Thiem edged the former No. 1 in a third-set tie break on the red clay of Buenos Aires last year. 

The 30-year-old Nadal is aiming for his 30th career Masters 1000 crown, which would equal Djokovic for the all-time lead.

Today’s first semifinal was a milestone meeting: The first men’s rivalry in the Open Era to reach 50 matches.

The reception the 30-year-old Spaniard received during pre-match introduction spoke volumes about home crowd support. But Djokovic took the court armed with the authority of a man who had transformed a once tight rivalry into a walk over a well-worn welcome mat.

Commanding the center of the court in their recent clashes, Djokovic had won 15 straight sets in amassing a 26-23 career edge over Nadal.

A good sign for Nadal was evident overhead. The roof was open after a soggy Friday and the Spaniard owns a significantly better record in outdoor conditions.

A jittery Djokovic didn’t give himself enough margin missing a forehand and backhand down the line to face triple break point in the opener.

Surprisingly, the second seed tried a second serve-and-volley play and paid the price when Nadal battered an easy backhand pass down the line breaking at love.

Nerves fluttered on both sides of the net. Nadal slapped a routine forehand into net to face love-30. Targeting the champion’s forehand with a series of series, Nadal navigated a deuce game to back up the break.

A primary part of Djokovic’s three-year dominance of Nadal has been predicated on his skill straddling the baseline, taking the twisting topspin from his rival on the rise, cracking the ball into the corners and changing direction shrewdly. Djokovic adopted that aggressive court positioning again, the problem was Nadal’s depth and his own waning confidence, created control issues.

Though his court positioning was often correct, Djokovic’s commitment to completing his strokes was lacking. He finished with 24 unforced errors, sometimes bailed out of points prematurely playing the drop shot and was sliding and reaching for the ball at times in the opening set.

Spraying a forehand, Djokovic faced double break point. Stepping in, Nadal crunched a diagonal forehand winner for his second straight break.

Slashing another inside-out forehand, the Monte-Carlo champion stamped a love hold for a 4-0 lead.

A ruthless Nadal won 17 of the first 21 points. Finally, Djokovic stopped the slide and cracked the scoreboard sliding a forehand down the line.

Shanking a forehand that crashed off the back wall, Djokovic faced a set point in the seventh game. He saved it then showed signs of assertiveness moving up to a roundhouse forehand drive volley and finishing a hard-fought hold with a backhand winner for 2-5.

Pulling the string on an exquisite backhand drop shot, Nadal wrapped a 40-minute rampage snapping his 15-set losing streak to his nemesis.

It was the first time Nadal won a set from Djokovic since his four-set victory in the 2014 Roland Garros final, 1,070 days ago.

The forehand failed Djokovic badly to start the second set. Three forehand errors, including flagging an uncommitted forehand into tape, saw Djokovic donate the break and a 1-0 second-set lead.

"To play Novak's backhand is not a tactic," Nadal said. "I don't think it's what I should do. After that, if I'm playing really well with my forehand. I'm a lefty. I normally do cross-court. When I start points, I always try to hit the ball cross-court. That's my game.

"I know to have chances against him, it's important to change the direction of the ball continuously. If I continuously play to his backhand, I think he has the best backhand in the tournament, in the world, so it won't be easy."

Finding the range with his two-hander, Djokovic drilled a crosscourt back for his first break point in the fourth game. Working his opponent side-to-side, Djokovic danced up near the service line and thumped his two-hander crosscourt breaking back for 2-all.

A spinning backhand return preceded a churning forehand pass from Nadal for break point. Djokovic, who had started to dial in his backhand, sprayed his two-hander down the line. Nadal earned his fourth break in seven service games then backed up the break for 4-2.

Spanish fans started the wave before the start of the 10th game, but the defending champion wasn’t ready to say good-bye just yet.

Djokovic saved two match points then stung a shot into Nadal’s hip, catching him trying to run around his backhand, for a break point. Nadal nudged a drop shot winner to save it. When the defending champion’s final shot strayed long, Nadal dropped to a squat with the joy of a man finally shirking a weight off his shoulders.

The nine-time Roland Garros champion raised his record to an ATP-best 33-5, including a 14-0 mark on clay. Nadal now takes aim at another milestone playing to become the first man to win Barcelona, all three clay-court Masters crowns—Monte-Carlo, Madrid and Rome—and Roland Garros in the same season.

"I know that I am playing well. I'm in a good way," Nadal said. "I started the year really well. I'm in a very important final, important tournament. That's the only thing I'm thinking about right now. All the other things, regarding tennis, I don't really care about that."

Since winning Roland Garros to complete the career Grand Slam last June, Djokovic has won just two titles in his last 13 tournaments—Toronto and Doha—and will now try to shed some self-doubt and perhaps hire a new coach ahead of Roland Garros to try to help formulate some answers.

"I'm not going to share anything with you now," Djokovic said when asked about a coaching decision. "I hope you understand and respect that. I'm just going to go along, and in the next three, four weeks maximum, I'll make my decisions around that, about the team. Then, of course, I'll let you know."


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