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By Richard Pagliaro | Thursday, May 6, 2021

Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal reeled off 13 points in a row sweeping qualifier Alexei Popyrin 6-3, 6-3 to charge into his 15th Mutua Madrid Open quarterfinal.

Photo credit: Alberto Nevado/Mutua Madrid Open

Court-side flowers sprouting behind the baseline in Madrid signal spring—and create a colorful backdrop for Rafael Nadal's annual red-clay resurgence.

Continung his hunt for a sixth Mutua Madrid Open championship, Nadal was booming and blooming in front of supportive Spanish fans.

More: Dominic Thiem Gets What He Needs in Madrid

The top seed surged through 13 straight points conquering qualifier Alexei Popyrin 6-3, 6-3 to charge into his 15th Madrid quarterfinal.

Nadal will face either 2018 Madrid champion Alexander Zverev for a spot in the final four.

The fifth-seeded Zverev was a 6-3, 7-6(3) victor over Daniel Evans.

The Nadal-Zverev meeting is  rematch of the 2018 Rome final, which the Spaniard won 6-3, 1-6, 6-3. Overall, Nadal has won five of their seven meetings, including a 3-0 record in their clay-court meetings.

A red clay meeting with Nadal represents a burial ground for qualifiers: the king of clay improved to 40-0 against qualifiers on dirt, including a three-set win over Ilya Ivashka en route to his 12th Barcelona championship.

Though today's match saw Nadal drop seven straight points to open, he recovered to restore his authority. Nadal saved five of six break points he faced, including withstanding that triple break point challenge in his opening game.

We know Nadal is a champion for all surfaces. In powerful back-to-back performances against NextGen stars in Madrid this week, the 20-time Grand Slam champion reminds us he's a force against all generations.

Yesterday, Nadal gave Spanish phenom Carloz Alcaraz a clay-court tutorial on his 18th birthday.

Today, Nadal vanquished a ghost from his past as Popyrin set out to channel Robin Soderling. 

The lanky Popyrin prepared for the Rafa red clay experience by watching video of how another tall power player, Sweden's Soderling, played in shocking Nadal at the 2009 Roland Garros.

Red-lining his strikes early, Popyrin powered through seven straight points to start, backing up his love hold earning triple-break point in Nadal's opening service game.

“I'm just going to go out there, have fun, going to put a little bit of tactics, maybe watch a little bit of his 2009 loss against Soderling,” Popyrin said after stopping Jannik Sinner on Wednesday. “Maybe I can get some tips from there. Other than that, you know, I'm just go out there and have fun.”

Then Pospisil's effort to force the issue created miscues and the top seed shifted into a higher gear. Nadal nullified all three break points and zapped an ace that helped him hold. Unable to close out a 30-love lead in the ensuing game, Popyrin double-faulted away the break and a 2-1 lead to the Spaniard.

The 21-year-old Aussie, who is the sixth-youngest player in the ATP's Top 100, knows hanging with Nadal in lung-draining baseline rallies on clay is as challenging as sweeping Manolo Santana Stadium court armed with a toothbrush. Popyrin played big but missed the mark dropping serve on an error to fall into a 1-4 hole.

Popyrin pressed Nadal to love-30 in the eight game. Standing up to stress, Nadal soared for a snazzy sky hook to ward off a lob and scrambled back on defense when Popyrin botched a routine high forehand volley letting the five-time champ off the hook with a hold for 5-3.

When Popyrin tried the delayed serve-and-volley down set point, Nadal wasn't fooled.

Knifing a low backhand return than handcuffed his opponent, Nadal broke for the third time to snatch the 43-minute opener. Nadal curled a forehand winner down the line earning his 12th straight point to break at love for a 2-0 second-set lead.

The 34-year-old Spaniard won 12 of the last 15 points played on his serve closing in 80 minutes to raise his record against Australians on dirt to an immaculate 10-0. Nadal was impressed with Popyrin's explosiveness and predicts he will rise as he learns to control his prodigious power on critical points. 

"Well, his power on the shots is amazing, yeah. I mean, if he is able to control little bit the mistakes, then going to be very difficult to beat him, no?" Nadal said. "He has an amazing serve and amazing shots from everywhere, yeah.

"Let's see what's going on in the future. If he is able to work the proper way, he's going to be in the high positions of the rankings fighting for things."


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