Rafael Nadal has been on an incredible run on clay this year, winning titles at Barcelona and Monte Carlo, but he will face a stern test in the Madrid Open semi-final against defending champion Novak Djokovic.
Saturday's clash at the Caja Magica will be the 50th career meeting between these two players and their rivalry is arguably one of the best match-ups in the sport. This is also the first men's rivalry to reach the 50-match milestone in the Open Era.
Nadal progressed to the last four after withstanding a tough challenge from David Goffin 7-6 (3), 6-2 at the Madrid Open on Friday. Meanwhile, Djokovic advanced when Kei Nishikori withdrew before their quarter-final because of a wrist injury.
Djokovic currently leads the head-to-head record against Nadal 26-23, including winning their last seven meetings (not to mention 15 straight sets) and their last three clashes on clay. Nadal hasn't beaten Djokovic since the 2014 French Open final but leads 14-7 on clay.
However, the Serbian has had a dismal season so far, struggling with an elbow injury and with no titles to his name. The No 2 seed lost early at the Australian Open, Acapulco, Indian Wells, and Monte Carlo — an unusual slump in form that was followed by Djokovic parting ways with his entire coaching staff.
Nadal, on the other hand, is enjoying a resurgent 2017, finishing runner-up at the Australian Open, Acapulco and Miami, and then winning historic 10th titles at the Barcelona Open and Monte Carlo Masters. In his 13-match winning streak, he did not encounter a top-five player and Djokovic will be looking to end his streak. The Serbian might be low on confidence, but his trusty backhand can easily neutralise Nadal's top-spin forehand.
The Madrid Open started their rivalry, with the Spanish crowd witnessing an engrossing semi-final in 2009 lasting over four hours which Nadal won after saving three match points.
Djokovic has constantly pushed Nadal out of his comfort zone, and over the last few years has cracked the formula of getting the better of the Spaniard. This match also serves as a great prelude to the French Open. If Nadal wins the semi-final, it will further cement his place as the favourite for the Roland Garros title. A Djokovic victory could prove to be a much-needed springboard for better results in the remainder of the season.
"It's going to be a very tough match against one of the best players in tennis history," Nadal said. "I've been playing at a high level during many weeks. I know it is going to be a day that either I play really well or I'm not going to have many chances."
Nadal may be the man in form but as history suggests, Djokovic could possibly be the only man to stop him.
With inputs from AP
Updated Date: May 13, 2017 18:19:53 IST