The Madrid Open has begun in earnest and for local favourite Rafa Nadal, in contrast to last year, it could not have come at a more opportune moment both physically and mentally.
At Roland Garros in May 2009, Nadal ceded to Roger Federer the title he had dominated the previous four years, although it was Robin Söderling, in a harbinger of things to come for the now number seven-ranked Swede, who actually dispatched the reigning champion in the fourth round before reaching the final himself.
Last year’s French Open was Nadal’s final tournament until the Montreal Masters in October. World number one at the time and coming off the back of an exceptional run of results – Nadal won the Australian Open, then swept the European clay court circuit clean with wins in Monte-Carlo, Barcelona and Rome – the scene was set for Nadal to triumph in his home capital.
But it was not to be. Nadal reached the final, after a stunning semi-final against Novak Djokovic, but was defeated by Federer in the title match. Unsurprisingly, Federer was the fresher of the two on that occasion. The Swiss beat Juan Martín del Potro comfortably in the first semi-final in 81 minutes, whereas Nadal and Djokovic slugged it out on Center Court well into dusk in a match lasting four hours and three minutes – an Open Era record for a three-set encounter.
Whether that was the draw that broke Nadal’s back is unclear – he had been carrying a niggling knee injury for some time – but it was the precursor to a string of problems that lost the Mallorcan his French Open and Wimbledon crowns, and his number one ranking.
“I came close to breaking,” said Nadal after Roland Garros. “I wanted to play Madrid, but now I think it was a mistake. Since Monte Carlo I hadn’t been performing as I should. I was having the best year of my career until the problems came. I’d been playing almost every day with an anti-inflammatory and I was in too much pain to play well at the tournaments that were important for me: Roland Garros and Wimbledon.”