“The first time I saw Rafa Nadal play in the flesh was at the Mutua Madrid Open in 2003. People’s comments and praise when he was a kid made me take an interest in him. He lost 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the first round against Àlex Corretja, but he played an amazing match. The signs were clear: we were watching a future champion of the tournament. And he has been one now several times; in fact, he won it on both hard court and clay”.
The words are from Manolo Santana and time has shown that his intuition did not let him down.
As he looked on, the teenager showed all the signs of a champion, a brave heart and a fierce soul, he would give his all to return impossible balls and he played with just one goal: to be better every day. The passing of the years would eventually turn him into dominant force at the Madrid tournament. “He fought for every point as if it were the last and kept his concentration at key moments, two essential ingredients for a great champion”. Specifically, for a five-time Mutua Madrid Open champion; more than anyone else in history.
A tournament talisman
It soon became clear than Nadal would have a special relationship with the tournament, which would be forever etched into its history. In 2005 he achieved a feat that he has not repeated in his entire career; he won a title on indoor hard court. Before the clay painted the Caja Mágica red, the facilities of Casa de Campo –with indoor hard court- hosted every edition of the Mutua Madrid Open until 2008. But the Balearic Islander had enough time to play one of the most epic finals of his life and claim his first, and so far only, trophy on the surface.
On the other side of the net stood Ivan Ljubicic, who was dominating the final 3-6, 2-6, but in three hours and 53 minutes Nadal managed to turn the final around, stringing together 3 sets, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6, in one of the most spectacular stories in the tournament’s history. Until that point he had not lost a single set; in the semis he saw off Robby Ginepri (7-6, 7-6), in the quarters Radek Stepanek (7-6, 6-4), while in the last sixteen he gave his compatriot Tommy Robredo little chance (6-2, 6-4) and did the same to Romanian player Victor Hanescu in his opener (7-6, 6-3).
First on clay
There was a five year wait until Nadal could be seen lifting another title in the capital, this time at the 2010 Mutua Madrid Open. It was another episode of the biggest rivalry in tennis. Roger Federer, who just one season earlier had beaten the Spaniard to take the first clay title in the Manolo Santana Stadium, awaited again in the final. Tennis’ el clásico was to take place again in Madrid.
And in a year in which he would end up taking the world number one spot from the Swiss, he claimed his second trophy at home. An immaculate run of matches of 22-0 on the slowest surface allowed him to string together titles in Monte Carlo, Rome, Madrid and at the French Open. As well as Federer, that year he left in his wake Nicolás Almagro (the only player who managed to take a set from him) in the semis, Gael Monfils in the quarters, John Isner in the last sixteen and Alexandr Dolgopolov in his opener.
Back to his best
Never far from success, Nadal won back the throne at the top of the rankings in the same year he won the Mutua Madrid Open again; 2013. With clay as his ally nobody would argue that he is the most dangerous player of all time, in that season his trophy haul also shattered anyone’s illusions that he was not physically fit.
In the Caja Mágica he stamped his authority as he stormed past Stan Wawrinka (6-2, 6-4) in the quickest final in the tournament’s history at just 72 minutes. He did likewise to Pablo Andújar in the semi-finals (6-4, 6-3) and when David Ferrer threatened to end his campaign in the quarters, he dug deep to find his best tennis, coming back to win 4-6, 7-6, 6-0 in a match that the Alicante native was just two points away from winning. Mikhail Youzhny and Benoit Paire also failed to get past the man from Manacor.
His first defence
In 2014 he did something only he has achieved at the Mutua Madrid Open: he defended his title. Nadal made it 10 wins out of 10 in two years to win two consecutive Ion Tiriac trophies in a season in which his path to the final was its most impressive. Juan Mónaco only took one game from him in his opener (6-1, 6-0), Jarkko Nieminen also failed to ask many questions of him (6-1, 6-4) and even Tomas Berdych in the quarter-finals (6-4, 6-2) or Roberto Bautista in the semis (6-4, 6-3) struggled to make a dent.
An upcoming Kei Nishikori, who was starting to make a move in the rankings and reveal himself as a threat on clay, finally found a way to play the Spaniard, who managed to come back against the Japanese player’s first set. However, when he began to dominate the match, the Asian player was forced to withdraw through injury (2-6, 6-4, 3-0 – withdrawal).
Defender of the crown
The ingredients highlighted by Manolo Santana from the first of the 57 matches Nadal has played in the Spanish capital are the same ones that have set him apart throughout his career and that he rediscovered last season to dominate the Caja Mágica clay once again. The winner of 30 ATP World Tour Masters 1000 crowns comes back to the Mutua Madrid Open as the defending champion after claiming the title in 2017 with a vibrant final against Dominic Thiem (7-6, 6-4) in two hours and 18 minutes.
During the clay swing, the Spaniard reignited his spark, the speed in his legs and the aggression of his forehand in order to dominate his path to a new title from start to finish. But first he had to see off the then number two in the world, Novak Djokovic (6-2, 6-4), and break a streak of seven defeats on the trot and three years unbeaten for the Serb whenever they crossed paths.
In the quarter-finals he came through another tough test, which at times produced the best clay tennis of the season, against David Goffin (7-6, 6-2), while in the second round he breezed past the unpredictable Nick Kyrgios (6-3, 6-1). Fabio Fognini, in Nadal’s opener, was the only player who managed to take a set from him in the entire tournament (7-6, 3-6, 6-4), but history had been made and Nadal is the only player to have achieved the five of a kind.