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What happened to Rafael Nadal in Madrid?

5/10/2012

Hmm, let's see here.

Rafael Nadal beats Novak Djokovic on red clay in Monte Carlo. Rafael Nadal loses to Fernando Verdasco on funky blue clay in Madrid.

Somehow, don't you think he'd take that tradeoff?

Nadal won't be too concerned about getting beaten by Verdasco on Thursday at the Madrid Open, although you'd have backed him to get the job done when leading 5-2, 15-0 on his serve in the third set. Uncharacteristically, Nadal, who owns one of the best overheads on tour, sent one into the net on the ensuing point, and it seemed to unnerve him.

What ticked him more, judging by his reaction, was how long Verdasco stayed down on the court in celebration when the three-hour match (they can't play a quick encounter against each other) ended. Nadal had to wait at the net for an eternity.

He'll remember that the next time they play.

Indeed, after Verdasco bid adieu to his 13-match losing streak against Nadal, he acted like he won a Grand Slam, sobbing then jogging over to his box to exchange hugs.

This clay-court season for Nadal was all about two things: winning the French Open, which is still more than two weeks away, and beating Djokovic. By losing to Verdasco, Nadal at least ensures his one-match winning streak against the Serb won't come to an end in front of his adoring public in Madrid. Had they met in Madrid, with its high altitude and fast conditions, Djokovic would have been the favorite.

Remember, in four visits now to Madrid -- since it shifted to clay -- Nadal has won the title only once, yet he's kept on taking care of business at Roland Garros. Dodgy knees, family problems and perhaps his slugfest against Djokovic in Madrid three years ago contributed to the lone blemish in Paris in 2009. Nadal reverts to more comfortable surroundings next week in Rome.

By now we know the players don't like the blue clay; several of them, including Nadal, have called it slippery. But Nadal, who came out on the wrong end of the PR stick by criticizing Roger Federer at the Australian Open, didn't do himself any good after the match Thursday when he hinted he wouldn't play in Madrid next year if the blue courts were still around.

Only a day earlier -- after a win over Nikolay Davydenko -- he said this: "It is the same for all of us, and if I lose here it will be because I was not good enough to win."

As for Verdasco, who was one of the hottest clay players in 2010, he needed this type of breakthrough result. He'd been drifting, reverting to his pre-Australian Open 2009 days.

Much easier for Fed

After scraping past the impressive Milos Raonic in a third-set tiebreaker Wednesday, in a match Raonic probably deserved to win (and the Canadian said as much on Twitter), Federer had a light workout Thursday. He spent less than an hour on court, dispatching Richard Gasquet 6-3, 6-2.

On paper, the matchup was dangerous, since the talented -- and now more mentally tough -- Gasquet had defeated Federer in two of their previous three head-to-heads on clay, including a thriller in Monte Carlo in 2005.

But Gasquet wasn't in good shape to offer resistance. He had a long week in Estoril, battling to the final, and spent nearly three hours on court in Madrid in a first-round win over Thomaz Bellucci. Read more into his willingness to tough it out against Bellucci than his display Thursday.

Federer, not under the same pressure as against Raonic, was much cleaner.

It looked like Nicolas Almagro would emulate Verdasco and end a jinx against a fellow Spaniard. But David Ferrer saved three match points to make it 10 straight against Almagro and set up a quarterfinal against Federer.

Federer and Ferrer's head-to-head record is also lopsided: 12-0 to the Swiss.

Another test for Djokovic

Taken to three sets by journeyman Daniel Gimeno-Traver in his opener, Djokovic, the leading member of the big three, was made to sweat, again, by Stanislas Wawrinka.

But followers of Wawrinka will know that the Swiss No. 2 often makes matches against the elite competitive -- without ever winning. Wawrinka, who hits one of the heaviest balls on tour, was gutsy when he saved five set points serving at 4-5, but a shocking drop shot cost him in the pivotal first set tiebreak. He lost 7-6 (5), 6-4. Djokovic served brilliantly, winning all but eight of his first serve points, and was only broken when he lost his concentration late in the second set.

What lingered in the memory, however, was Djokovic's mindset. Yes, he made it clear, as he did in his match with Gimeno-Traver, that he didn't like the surface. He looked down at the blue clay on a handful of occasions, audibly frustrated. And chasing a sweetly struck Wawrinka backhand down the line, he took a tumble.

Djokovic got up, dusted himself off, and got on with things. It's another example of how he's improved, and how aware he is of the responsibility that goes along with being No. 1.

After Thursday's action, we're one step closer to a Djokovic-Federer semifinal, which would be the real final now that Nadal has departed.