MADRID, May 8, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
The last time Rafael Nadal came into the ATP Masters 1000 Mutua Madrid Open without having won clay titles in Monte-Carlo or Barcelona was 2015 – the same year Barcelona won its last UEFA Champions League title.
The second-seeded Spaniard from Mallorca is seeking his first title of the season – on any surface – after falling in the semifinals at both the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters and the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell, losing to both of the eventual champions, Fabio Fognini and Dominic Thiem.
“I would have liked to come here with four titles on clay in my bag, but no more pressure on my shoulders,” said Nadal during a media session on Tuesday that was delayed by two days while he battled a stomach virus. “Physically talking, well I try to do my best, look at the positive things, go step by step, look at the positive side of everything.”
On Wednesday afternoon, the five-time Madrid champion Nadal faced the 30th-ranked Canadian wild card and #NextGenATP star Felix Auger-Aliassime in his first test at Caja Mágica. Nadal knew coming in that he had to be fit, play with a positive attitude, and hope that his physical side would be there in his first career meeting against the 18-year-old from Montréal. “If I play my tennis well,” he said before the match, “I’ll have possibilities and that is what I’m doing right now, what I’m trying to do.”
As it happened, Nadal relied upon a steady defense (winning 47 percent of his return points) to offset Auger-Aliassime’s aggressiveness (30 unforced errors, including 16 from his forehand), and it provided to be a successful strategy. Nadal won 6-3, 6-3 in one hour and 37 minutes to move in search of a sixth Madrid title.
“It’s been a tough few days with a virus in my stomach,” said Nadal during a post-match TV interview with the ATP Tour. “So, for me today, the main thing was a victory. I’m happy it was in straight sets. Felix is a great opponent – a great player – and he will be a great champion. I’m very happy to be through.”
As Nadal sought his 50th career win at Madrid, he grabbed the 41-minute opening set by taking advantage of a service break against Auger-Aliassime in the eighth game, in which the young Canadian committed five unforced errors on his forehand. Nadal’s quick recognition to adjust his game, plus his experience – he’s 14 years older than Auger-Aliassime – benefited him. Nadal won 89 percent of his first-serve points in the opening set and played nearly-flawless tennis as he quickly cashed in on his first set-point opportunity.
Then, Nadal wasted little time in breaking Auger-Aliassime to open the second set and consolidated the break for a quick 2-0 lead. Still ahead a break at 4-2, Nadal hit a blistering forehand passing shot and followed it with a two-fisted backhand winner, capping a six-shot rally, that left Auger-Aliassime unable to move or react in time. With another break that gave him a commanding 5-2 advantage and now with the match on his racquet, Nadal was eager to put away Auger-Aliassime for good. Although the Spaniard failed to capitalize on the break – losing the game on his third double fault – he won the match on Auger-Aliassime’s serve and in his sixth match-point attempt.
Home comforts for King Rafa 🤴
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) 8. Mai 2019
“It’s a day to be very satisfied, very happy,” said Nadal during his press conference, as quoted by the ATP website. “I managed to win. I managed to win in two sets (against) an opponent, who was not easy, and the day was not the best. It was windy and cold. Of course, there have been positive things. I think that my backhand has been really (going) well and other things. There are many things to improve, of course.”
Next for Nadal will be a round of 16 match against a familiar foe, No. 37 Frances Tiafoe, Thursday night on Court Manolo Santana (not before 8 p.m.). The two faced each other in the quarterfinal round of this year’s Australian Open that Nadal won. On Wednesday, the American No. 2 went the distance before advancing over No. 50 Philipp Kohlschreiber of Germany, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3. Tiafoe broke his opponent four times and outpointed him 83-77 during the one hour and 51 minute match.
Besides the Nadal/Auger-Aliassime day session headliner, another match of considerable interest took place on Court Arantxa Sanchez between Rio de Janeiro champion Laslo Djere of Serbia and No. 7 seed Juan Martín del Potro of Argentina, who was playing in just his second tournament of the year after being sidelined two and one-half months with a knee injury. Last October, del Potro fractured his right knee at the Masters 1000 event in Shanghai before coming back in February at Delray Beach. Despite his inactivity, he’s remained ranked in the Top 10 after reaching the Roland Garros semifinals, Wimbledon quarterfinals and U.S. Open final last season.
On Wednesday, it was the No. 32 Djere who was just a little bit better, beating the Argentine, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5, in two hours and 22 minutes. Although del Potro hit 11 service aces and won 82 percent (42 of 51) of his first-serve points, Djere proved the steadier player – he hit 36 winners and saved nine of 11 break points he faced – and even saved a match point. He outpointed del Potro, 95-90, by scoring 19 more points on his serve than his opponent. Next, Djere will face No. 9 seed Marin Cilic.
Around Caja Mágica
• No. 6 seed Kei Nishikori advanced to the round of 16 with a 7-5, 7-5 win over 109th-ranked qualifier Hugo Dellien after the Bolivian saved seven set points in the opening set. The seventh-ranked Japanese and 2014 Madrid finalist was solid with his returns throughout and broke Dellien five times in 24 opportunities. Next, Nishikori will face No. 34 Stan Wawrinka in Thursday’s round of 16. The 34-year-old Swiss improved to 15-11 lifetime in Madrid with his win over No. 26 and Brasil Open titlist Guido Pella of Argentina, 6-3, 6-4. He leveraged a service break in each set to advance.
• Just three days after winning the title at Estoril, No. 8 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece moved into the round of 16 with a 6-2, 7-5 win over 56th-ranked lucky loser Adrian Mannarino of France. Tsitsipas controlled much of the 78 minute match, winning 79 percent (23 of 29) of his first-serve points, including six aces, and broke Mannarino four times. He outpointed the Frenchman 64-49 for his 24th win of the season. Next, Tsitsipas will play two-time Madrid quarterfinalist Fernando Verdasco of Spain.
• No. 10 Fabio Fognini from Italy easily defeated Australian John Millman, 6-2, 6-2, needing just 69 minutes, to set up a round of 16 meeting against No. 5 seed Dominic Thiem of Austria.
• No. 15 seed Gaël Monfils came from a set down and relied on some acrobatic returns to beat No. 36 Marton Fucsovics of Hungary, 1-6, 6-4, 6-2. The World No. 18 from Paris advanced to a Thursday afternoon showdown (on Court Manolo Santana not before 4 p.m.) with No. 4 seed Roger Federer in the Swiss’ second match on clay since 2016.
• No. 47 Jeremy Chardy of France advanced to face World No. 1 and top seed Novak Djokovic by upsetting No. 25 Diego Schwartzman of Argentina, 6-1, 6-2. Chardy won 71 percent of his service points and was not broken during the 59 minute match. The Chardy-Djokovic match takes place Thursday on Court Manolo Santana not before 2 p.m.
• Qualifier Hubert Hurkacz of Poland, ranked 52nd, ended the six-match winning streak of No 28 Lucas Pouille from France, winning 7-5, 6-1. Hurkacz has strung together four consecutive wins and will now face No. 3 seed Alexander Zverev, who beat 144th-ranked wild card David Ferrer 6-4, 6-1 in one hour and 10 minutes.
Once upon a time, Rafael Nadal was a teen phenom, too. He won Roland Garros and six ATP Masters 1000 titles before turning 20. Now age 32, the Spaniard is 20-2 against #NextGenATP players since the campaign launched at 2016 ATP Masters 1000 Indian Wells. His next opponent, 21-year-old Frances Tiafoe of the United States, is also a #NextGenATP star. Nadal sized up Tiafoe, saying, “He’s electric, he’s fast. So, I’ll need to play my best. I think the match today (against Auger-Aliassime) will help me for tomorrow.”
What they’re saying
No. 4 seed Roger Federer, after playing in first clay-court match in almost three years on Tuesday and beating Richard Gasquet, 6-2, 6-3, said in an ATP Tour TV interview: “I’m very happy to be back on clay. Super happy to be back here in Madrid. The crowds and the ovation I got before and after the game were great. It really makes you feel like that was the right choice to come to Madrid, so that felt good. The first game went well. I didn’t think Richard was at his best, far off. But from my side, it was a good match.
“(Crowd was) great. It’s been wonderful. I think, always in Spain, I’ve been well-received over the last decade or so just because of my rivalry with Rafa and all the other Spanish players, like Ferrer and so forth. So the people really know me. They followed my matches closely for so many years. They heard me speak, and they feel like they kind of know me. So then when I come to their markets, I think they appreciate it, and so do I. Full house, special atmosphere, so I appreciate it.”
Second round singles
Jeremy Chardy d. Diego Schwartzman, 6-1, 6-2
Laslo Djere d. No. 7 Juan Martín del Potro, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5
No. 15 Gaël Monfils d. Marton Fucsovics, 1-6, 6-4, 6-2
No. 10 Fabio Fognini d. John Millman, 6-2, 6-2
No. 8 Stefanos Tsitsipas d. LL-Adrian Mannarino, 6-2, 7-5
Q-Hubert Hurkacz d. Lucas Pouille, 7-5, 6-1
No. 6 Kei Nishikori d. Q-Hugo Dellien, 7-5, 7-5
Stan Wawrinka d. Guido Pella, 6-3, 6-4
Frances Tiafoe d. Philipp Kohlschreiber, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3
No. 2 Rafael Nadal d. WC-Felix Auger-Aliassime, 6-3, 6-3
No. 3 Alexander Zverev d. WC-David Ferrer, 6-4, 6-1
Fernando Verdasco d. No. 11 Karen Khachanov, 6-7(4), 6-1, 7-5