May 16, 2010
In beating Roger Federer in Sunday's final of the Madrid Open, Rafael Nadal became the first man to win three straight Masters 1000 events and surpassed Andre Agassi as the most prolific Masters champion of all time. He also sent a signal to the rest of the tour that the tiny sliver of hope they had to knock off Nadal at the French Open just slammed shut. Rafa -- the real Rafa who is the best clay-court player in history -- is back.
On Sunday, he didn't play particularly well, spraying shots in the first set and proving vulnerable to Federer's creative drop shots. Yet even with his "B" game, Nadal still beat the world's No. 1 player in straight sets, 6-4, 7-6 (5). The victory makes Rafa three-for-three in clay-court events this season. He lost just two sets.
The match appeared destined for a decisive third set when Federer jumped out to a 4-2 lead in the second-set tiebreak. But four straight unforced errors and a bizarre whiff on match point felled Federer, who struggled all day with his backhand from deep beyond the baseline. He enters the French Open as the top seed and defending champion, but even he seems resigned to having his reign end in three weeks.
It was the pair's first meeting since last year's Madrid final, which Federer won against a gimpy Nadal. The win gives Rafa a 14-7 career record against his arch-rival, including a 10-2 mark on clay. He's 168-6 overall on the surface since 2005. Next week, he'll begin his quest for a fifth French Open title.