Novak Djokovic played the clay court match of his life but it wasn’t quit enough to beat Rafael Nadal.

Either Rafael Nadal fell out of the bed this morning or three straight clay titles have worn him down because he gave Novak Djokovic a break in his very first service game of their semifinal in Madrid by double faulting with a serve that landed halfway up the net then slowly rolled back towards him. As for the rest of his game, Rafa was spraying balls like a misbehaving ball machine.

When you see your opponent doing that, especially if he’s the best clay court player on the planet, you can’t help but feel very good all of a sudden. And Djokovic did feel good. He probably couldn’t believe his eyes. And he wasn’t just feeling good, he was carrying out a successful strategy.

Serving with a 4-2 lead in the first set, Djokovic was slamming balls at Rafa’s backhand till he got a good enough angle to hit a sharp crosscourt backhand to Rafa’s forehand side. He followed that up with another hard flat shot to Rafa’s backhand then hit behind him to finish off the point. In the next point he took a short ball and hit wide to Rafa’s forehand side again. Djokovic walked off the court having won the game as Rafa swisped at the clay with his racket.

I wondered if anyone would beat Rafa on clay this year and, if they did, would it be one of those matches where Rafa was exhausted or would his opponent be able to outplay him? Djokovic is the second best clay court player on the planet this year – he was Rafa’s victim in the final of the previous two Masters 1000 events in Monte Carlo and Rome – so he’s as good a candidate as anyone and he has something Roger Federer doesn’t: a good strong two handed backhand and a unparalleled ability to change directions with it.

Well, Djokovic is actually second when it comes to that too. David Nalbandian is best at redirecting his backhand but now he’s out for months with hip surgery and I’ve not seen anyone return from hip surgery yet and look good. Have you? To tell you how important that redirection thing is, Nalbandian actually has a winning record over Nadal.

Djokovic held on to the break to win the first set and Rafa began to wake up a bit in the second set, but after going up 2-1 he called for medical help. Rafa’s left knee was bothering him so maybe he hadn’t fallen out of bed and maybe this is the same thing we see each year with Rafa: the fatigue induced physical breakdown. He used to wear tape under both knees, now he had tape on top of his knee.

Rafa stayed in the second set but clearly he wasn’t at full strength so you had to think the knee was bothering him. He was still spraying shots and he wasn’t winning points when he had to run down a drop shot, clearly something wasn’t right. I want to say that Rafa also wasn’t running around his backhand as much as usual but it’s hard to know because Djokovic was hitting hard flat shots to his backhand side and maybe Rafa didn’t have time to run around his backhand. I’d have to see someone beat Rafa with the same tactic when he doesn’t have tape all over his knee to know for sure.

Djokovic got two break points at 4-4 and another at 5-5 but Rafa does what he does, hang in there, and he had a set point on Djokovic’s serve at 6-5. This is a good time to note one other place where Djokovic comes in second.

Rafa gets a lot of credit for adding more mad skills to his game than any other player and he deserves that crown as does his coach Toni Nadal since everyone else imports temporary coaches while Toni and Rafa appear to go it alone, but Djokovic comes in second again and that’s a good thing. His net game has improved tremendously and he used it to fend off that break point.

Thus they found themselves in the second set tiebreaker and I can assure you Djokovic did not want to go another round with Rafa, but Rafa found himself with a set point at 6-3 in the tiebreaker after some gorgeous play that included a runaround forehand down the line that was so improbable that it left Djokovic flat footed even though he was only a few feet from where it landed. Djokovic put a return out of the court and we were on to the third set.

Serving at 1-2 in the third set Rafa shanked a serve so badly it ended up in the bottom of the net. I guess it can happen to anyone but I’ve never seen it happen to him before. That double fault put him down 0-30 and Djokovic managed to get the break but in next game, Rafa put Djokovic through a 31 point rally before finishing it off with a feathery drop shot and Djokovic started to cramp. Rafa had his break back.

It may seem disingenuous because both players gave us a huge match today, but you have to rap both players on the noggin for cheating tennis by playing their home country events instead of taking a week off. Both play five tournaments in four weeks including three Masters events because Rafa insists on playing Barcelona and Djokovic just played the small event in Serbia.

And they now found themselves in what would be the longest best out of three Masters match in history. I guarantee you it wouldn’t have been historic if the chair umpire had enforced the 25 second time limit between points, by the way. If you think Nadal takes forever between points, Djokovic is right up there.

Rafa hit another error to go down a minibreak in the third set tiebreaker and Djokovic looked like he might pull out his first clay court victory over Rafa in nine tries, but then he gave the minibreak right back. Rafa hit another error to give Djokovic a match point at 6-5 and Djokovic did everything he possibly could to cash in. There was a hard low backhand that Rafa had to scoop out of the dirt, a forehand down the line that just stayed inside the line, and a high bouncer that anyone else would have just put back in the court. But Rafa, who isn’t just anyone, swung up at the ball with a forehand swipe and curled a winner into the deep corner of his opponent’s court.

Two points later Djokovic had his second match point and this time he did all the saving before Rafa finally managed to wrong foot him and put another curling forehand in that same deep corner. On Rafa’s first match point at 8-7, Djokovic went to the drop shot again to save it but he messed up a return on his third match point and now they were at 9-9.

The quality of the shots was stunning and Rafa had one more stunning shot: an out of position running forehand that Djokovic surely wasn’t expecting him to hit for a winner. One more deep shot down the line and Rafa had added another entry to his long list of “best ever” matches.

Djokovic couldn’t beat Rafa even though Rafa didn’t look like he was at full strength, but jeez, don’t tell Djokovic that because he’d played magnificent tennis running down ball after ball after ball for over four hours in front of a madly partisan crowd. He did say the following after the match: “I’m very disappointed that I can play this well and still not win a match, ” and he’s now in the curious position – like the rest of the tour – of feeling like he’s getting closer to beating Rafa but just as far away.

Still, he should remember that Rafa dealt with that feeling for, what, 160 weeks. That’s how long he stayed at number two and look where he is now.

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