The Mutua Madrid Open has always been characterised by its idiosyncrasies among the other tournaments in its Masters 1000 category. Now just a year away from adulthood, the open in the Spanish capital can boast having been an exclusive stomping ground for the Big Four since 2009, when it moved to its current venue in the Caja Mágica, the surface was switched to clay and the date changed to the first fortnight of May. Only Rafa Nadal, the Swiss Roger Federer, Serb Novak Djokovic and Briton Andy Murray have lifted the Ion Tiriac Trophy. Moreover, if we allow ourselves to include the last tournament at Casa de Campo, all four of the players who have defined the most brilliant decade in the history of tennis are at least two-time champions in Madrid, counting the ten editions that have taken place since then.
No fewer than 5 of the 9 finals that have been hosted by the Manolo Santana Centre Court have been played between two members of the Big Four. Federer won the title by beating Nadal in the final (2009, the first championship match in the Caja Mágica) and Nadal gave him a taste of his own medicine the following season. Djokovic celebrated his two titles after winning the final point with Nadal (2011) and Murray (2016) on the other side of the net. The Scot was the defending champion at the time, having seen off the Balearic Islander in 2015, when he profited from 54 of the 56 points he won, as only 2 did not contribute to him notching up a game.
This absolute dominance cannot be found at any of the remaining eight Masters 1000 events, where either there has been a champion who does not belong to this historic elite group or one of its members has shown year after year that they are unable to get past the final hurdle. For example, Nadal has lost five finals in Miami and Djokovic is yet to cross the finish line in Cincinnati after the same number of attempts. Federer has never won on the clay in Monte Carlo or Rome. Murray has only found his A-game on the brick dust in the Spanish capital, as we saw in 2015, when he was crowned champion, and the following year when he beat Nadal again in the semis. The Scot is the only player to have beaten the Mallorcan in the Caja Mágica since 2012, and he has done so twice.
Another characteristic that adds to the grandeur of the Mutua Madrid Open is that the winner of the final seems to receive a boost at Roland Garros. Six of the nine winners in Madrid have lifted the Musketeer’s Cup a month later in the shadow of the Eifel Tower. Besides Nadal, a ten-time champion in Paris, Federer, who made the most of the altitude to beat the Spaniard in the decider in 2009, reached the French Open final again that year. But the Swiss did not meet Nadal on that occasion, instead Swedish player Robin Soderling awaited on the other side of the net, and he finally won the major he needed to complete his career slam. The same happened to Djokovic 2 years ago. Spanish fans were treated to seeing the Serb’s last big tournament on clay before he finally went on to win the second Grand Slam tournament of the season.
But Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Murray are not just habitual champions of the Mutua Madrid Open, they have also produced some memorable performances in earlier rounds that are still fresh in the minds of those who were lucky enough to be there and those who watched on their TV screens. One of those unforgettable matches came when Federer treated fans to a win over Feliciano López in the second round in 2011. There were no breaks of serve and the balance only tipped in favour of the Swiss after three tiebreaks (the first was 28 points long), a match point saved and a missed smash at the net that would have had the Toledo native 6-2 up in the final tiebreak.
Without a doubt, Nadal’s biggest match before the final, even though he did not manage to lift the trophy the first year at the current venue, was his semi-final against Djokovic in 2009, in which play lasted 4 hours and 3 minutes. Not only did the Manacor native come back in the tie, he defended 3 match points in the definitive tiebreak, the second of the match. Possibly the best moment produced by the Serbian on his way to a Madrid final was his semi-final victory in 2011, the year of his first title. In fact, his victory over the Brazilian Thomaz Bellucci, having lost the first set and being a break down in the second, is the only time he has won on the clay in the Spanish capital after losing the first set.
As Ion Tiriac pointed out when asked his opinion of the clash, the South American was just ten minutes away from the final. And, without a doubt, another semi-final, that of 2008, will always be remembered as Murray’s masterpiece in Madrid. The Scot, who was crowned the last champion in the now extinct Rockodromo at Casa de Campo, managed to win a match in which he was the underdog and he trailed early on. Moreover, it was against Federer. It had only been one month since the Swiss defeated Murray in New York in the Briton’s first Grand Slam final. They put on a display of rapid, first-class tennis, completing their 30 games in less than two hours.