MADRID – Spain’s Rafael Nadal rallied from a set down to defeat arch-rival Roger Federer 5-7, 6-1, 6-3 on Saturday in the Mutua Madrid Open semifinals and will next take on his top adversary in 2011, Serbia’s Novak Djokovic, for the title.
The match was played under the roof at Manolo Santana Stadium, making for faster conditions that should have favored Federer. But as long as clay is the surface, Nadal nearly always has the edge and such was the case on Saturday afternoon.
Federer fell behind an early break in the first set but battled back to even the score and then notched a second break to take the first set 7-5.
But the world No. 1 took full control from that point forward, employing his usual tactic of targeting the Federer backhand with high-bouncing topspin.
The Swiss showed signs of life with Nadal trying to close out the match, but he squandered that chance with a series of backhand errors.
“I don’t think it was our best match for either of us, I think we both made some errors, more than usual,” Nadal said in the post-match press conference.
“I think that at moments Roger played very aggressive and great tennis and in other moments he had more mistakes than usual. So the match was a little bit up and down, but for sure it’s always a special match against each other. It’s a pleasure to play against him – always an honor.”
Prior to the match, a special tribute was paid to Spanish golfing legend Seve Ballesteros, who died early Saturday at the age of 54 after a two-and-a-half-year battle with brain cancer.
Nadal was visibly moved and appeared to wipe away a tear as the two players were at net for the pre-match coin flip.
In the final, Nadal will take on red-hot world No. 2 Djokovic, who fought off a tough challenge from Brazil’s Thomaz Bellucci in Saturday’s second semifinal before taking the match 4-6, 6-4, 6-1.
With the victory, Djokovic won his 31st match to begin the 2011 season, 11 match wins short of the fastest-ever start to an ATP Tour season (American John McEnroe in 1984).
He now faces the daunting task of trying to defeat a player who, with five French Opens and 15 clay-court ATP World Tour Masters 1000 titles under his belt, has a well-earned reputation as the king of that surface.
Djokovic has won both matches between them this year – both finals of hard-court events in the United States.
The two also played a memorable semifinal match at this same Madrid clay-court tournament in 2009, with Nadal eking out a 3-6, 7-6, (7-5), 7-6 (11-9) victory.
Overall, Nadal holds a 16-9 edge in their head-to-head and a 9-0 advantage on clay.
The Mutua Madrid Open is one of three ATP World Tour Masters 1000 events played on clay and a key tune-up event for the French Open, which gets underway later this month.