But no one left a larger imprint on the red clay of Spain than Andy Murray. Five days before he will turn 28, the world No. 3 cast aside Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-2 in the final. Heading into the 2015 season, Murray had never managed to capture a singles title on the dirt, but he won the ATP World Tour 250 event in Munich only six days before he eclipsed Nadal, and that set the stage for his heroics in Spain. Murray walked on court with a 5-15 career head to head record against the Spaniard, and he was 0-6 versus Nadal in their personal series on clay. But he was unflinching on this occasion, giving away very little, playing unswerving percentage tennis, stepping inside the baseline ceaselessly to attack Nadal’s second serve.
By virtue of that one-sided victory, Murray has now secured no fewer than 33 career singles titles. Although he has come out on the wrong end in six of eight career major finals, the fact remains that overall this proud and purposeful man has been remarkably good in title round clashes. Consider this: he has now won 10 of 14 final round duels at Masters 1000 events, and, excluding the Grand Slam events, Murray has prevailed in 31 of 41 finals.
The evidence was abundant from the outset that Nadal was apprehensive. On the very first point of the match, he went for a running forehand that would normally be well within his range, and smothered that ball with excessive topspin into the net. Nadal made a couple more uncharacteristic errors in that game—both off the backhand—and Murray bolted to 1-0 without any commotion, holding at love. Nadal was still misfiring badly in the following game, and was broken at 15 with an unprovoked mistake off the backhand. Murray opened the third game with an ace, and closed it with an unstoppable first serve out wide in the deuce court, holding at 15 for 3-0. But Nadal was guilty of two more flagrant unforced errors in that game.
Murray had moved swiftly to 3-0, sweeping 12 of 14 points in the process. Nadal had barely tested his adversary from the baseline because the Spaniard was so unsettled off both sides. He was not feeling the ball well at all, and many of his misses were not even close; his backhand in particular was way below par. Yet he inevitably made a serious push to get back in the set, and nearly did. The Spaniard held at love for 1-3, concluding that game with a service winner out wide in the deuce court, followed by a patented wide serve in the ad court that opened the court for an inside out forehand winner. At last, Nadal had started playing like Nadal. Although Murray held at 30 for 4-1 despite missing five out of six first serves, Nadal retaliated with a love hold in the sixth game. He was finding his range and building intensity.
The seventh game was critical. Despite one wild mistake off the forehand that knotted the score at 15-15, Nadal connected with an inside in forehand winner and then an inside out winner off the same flank. It was 15-40 and Nadal seemed poised to break back. But he narrowly missed another forehand winner down the line, sending that shot long. Murray made it to deuce with a service winner out wide. He collected the next two points, advanced to 5-2, and halted Nadal’s momentum. Once more, Nadal held without conceding a point in the eighth game, achieving a third love hold in a row. He attacked commandingly in that game, making a backhand drop volley winner for 15-0, coming forward to put away an overhead for 30-0, taking the next two points with unmistakable conviction.
With Murray serving for the set at 5-3, Nadal created another opportunity for himself. He had a break point, but here Murray played a commendably, sending a first serve down the T, eliciting a short return, pounding a forehand into the clear. Murray garnered the next two points to seal the set 6-3. He had saved two break points at 4-2, and had erased another at 5-3. The British competitor deserved that set, but from 0-3 down Nadal had raised his game decidedly, and he seemed likely to gain the upper hand in the early stages of the second set and make his presence known more menacingly.
And yet, that was not the case at all. Nadal’s anxiety returned almost fatalistically in the opening game of the second set. Perhaps provoked by Murray stepping in to attack his second serve, maybe unnerved by Murray’s capacity to control the rallies, Nadal double faulted for 15-15, bungled a forehand inside in that found the net, rallied for 30-30 but then committed another unforced netted error off the forehand to fall behind 30-40. Nadal was in such disarray off both sides from the backcourt that he knew he had to force his way forward. He saved a break point with dexterity after Murray answered an overhead with a low forehand pass crosscourt. Nadal’s backhand half-volley drop shot was too good, but then he netted a backhand drop volley and alarmingly missed a routine backhand down the line.
Murray had moved ahead by a set and a break. He quickly arrived at 2-0 with a love hold, opening the second game with an ace down the T, closing it with another ace in the ad court. In between, Nadal played a pair of horrendous points; two more forehands from the Spaniard went wayward. The third game of that second set did irreparable damage to the Spaniard. He had a couple of game points, fought ferociously through three deuces, but surrendered that game in the end. Murray produced a scintillating forehand down the line winner from well behind the baseline, and Nadal then erred abysmally off the backhand as his feeble two-hander never even reached the net.
Murray was striking the ball immaculately and constructing points with clarity, while Nadal’s game was utterly off the mark. The British player had built too big a lead to be beaten now. He held at 15 for 4-0 as Nadal totally miss-hit another two-hander out of court. Nadal’s pride and perspicacity allowed him to hold two more times, but Murray was unshakable. Serving for the match at 5-2, he held from 15-30. Murray’s first serve that took him to 30-30 was unreturnable, but then Nadal closed the curtain on himself with back to back errant forehand returns off second serves; those two shocking mistakes were symbolic of Nadal’s horrific evening at the office. Murray had become only the fourth player ever to stop Nadal in a clay court final. For the first time in his 21 match series with the Spaniard, Murray never lost his serve. Nadal had been victorious in 46 of his previous 53 clay court finals, losing only to Novak Djokovic four times, Roger Federer twice and Horacio Zeballos once.
What was most striking about Murray was his conditioning and composure. He had ousted Philipp Kohlschreiber in the Monday Munich final with a final set tie-break success. After one day of rest, he faced Kohlschreiber again in Madrid, and came through 6-0 in the final set. He did not drop another set on his way to the final, avenging a loss to Kei Nishikori in the round robin last November at London with an impressive 6-4, 6-3 triumph on the clay. Murray won 79% of his first serve points while Nishikori only took 59% on his first delivery. On second serve points won, Murray was at 54% while Nishikori stood at only 44%. Murray picked apart his adversary with a superior backhand down the line, better returning and sounder execution from the baseline.
Nadal, meanwhile, was picking up steam. He upended Grigor Dimitrov in the quarters and struck down Tomas Berdych 7-6 (3), 6-1 in the semifinals. In that match, he mixed up his serve locations impeccably and was as lethal as he has been all year off the forehand, keeping Berdych at bay frequently with inside out and forehand down the line winners. Nadal won 86% of his first serve points and was at 72% on second serves. He emphatically avenged his loss to Berdych at the Australian Open. He was first rate across the board.
After that performance, it seemed entirely possible that Nadal would win the tournament and head into Rome this week with his aura back and his psyche largely repaired. But he has seldom played an important match as tentatively and unpersuasively as he did against an in form Murray, and even his most ardent boosters must be wondering now if Nadal can reignite his game and recover the consistency and polish he will need to win a tenth French Open next month. That will be a tall order.
After winning an ATP World Tour 250 event the week before in Istanbul, Federer had a tough draw in Madrid. After a first round bye, he took on the highly charged and fiercely competitive Kyrgios, a player who lives for the lofty stages. Here is a man who cut down Nadal on the Centre Court of Wimbledon last year when he was only 19, serving 37 aces in four sets, winning two crucial tie-breaks in that round of 16 encounter. Kyrgios broke Federer in the first game of their Madrid showdown, and served for the first set at 5-4. Federer made some timely returns to break back and took that set in a tie-break as Kyrgios imploded for unjustifiable reasons.
Federer opened up a 2-0 second set lead, but Kyrgios broke back and reached another tie-break. After leading 6-2, he squandered three set points, but sealed it on the fourth with a cagey kick serve to the backhand that Federer could not get back in play. The third set featured superb serving from both players, and on they went to another tie-break. Kyrgios took that sequence 14-12 on his sixth match points after saving two match points. On four of the five match points he saved, Federer released unanswerable first serves, but Kyrgios would not let go. He won 6-7 (2), 7-6 (5), 7-6 (12). Federer gave the 20-year-old Australian every chance to fail, but Kyrgios refused the invitation. He can be abrasive, immature, even egotistical, but this is a player made to be a champion. Federer won 131 points in that skirmish while Kyrgios secured 127, but Kyrgios would not blink when it counted. Although Isner upended him 6-3, 6-7 (7), 6-4, the fact remains that Kyrgios will be one of the game’s giant killers for a very long while.
What happened to Serena Williams? She had not lost since her round robin defeat against Halep last fall in Singapore, but clearly was not at her zenith in Madrid. Azarenka should have won the first set of their round of 16 meeting, but threw away a 5-1 tie-break lead, losing six points in a row. Serena led 3-2, 40-15 in the second set but she did not put the clamps down, dropping four games in a row. Williams had a match point with Azarenka serving at 4-5 in the third set, but then the two-time major champion held on, broke for 6-5, and served for the match, moving ahead 40-0. Williams audaciously directed a forehand crosscourt for a winner to save one match point, then took a backhand return early and went behind Azarenka to force an error on the second.
Yet Azarenka still had another match point in hand at 40-30. She narrowly missed an ace out wide, and then double faulted. And then she did it two more times. Those three double faults in a row from Azarenka doomed her chances, and Williams crushed her in the final set tie-break. For Azarenka, it was a monumental opportunity missed to record a hard fought win over the best player in the world and thus get herself back into the conversation as a candidate for today’s top honors.
As for Williams, she took apart Carlos Suarez Navarro in the quarters, but could not contain a free flowing and resolute Kvitova in the semifinals. To be sure, this was not a top of the line Williams. Although she had never lost to Kvitova before, Serena seemed devoid of a central strategy, and competitively empty. The fact remains that Kvitova was magnificent, keeping Williams off balance and ill at ease unremittingly. Williams was broken after eight deuces in the third game of the opening set as Kvitova released a stream of spectacular returns. Kvitova was guilty of three double faults as Williams countered for 2-2, but the dynamic left-hander swept four games in a row to seal the set.
A listless Williams trailed 1-5, 0-30 in the second set before capturing two games in a row and building a 30-0 lead at 3-5. But she double faulted and dropped the next three points as Kvitova came away with a 6-2, 6-3 triumph to end Serena’s 27 match winning streak. In the final, Kvitova crushed a revitalized Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-1, 6-2 with another superb shotmaking display. Kuznetsova had easily defeated No. 8 seed Ekaterina Makarova but then went down to the wire to overcome Spain’s big hitting Garbine Muguruza 7-5 in the final set. Sam Stosur took Kuznetsova to a final set tie-break, as did Lucie Safarova. But Kuznetsova took out her survival kit in both duels. In the semifinals, she put on a stellar display of tactical acumen to erase Maria Sharapova 6-2, 6-4, but against Kvitova she ran out of escape routes. The No. 4 seed was untouchable that afternoon.
Murray was surprisingly comfortable and largely unchallenged by an almost unrecognizable Nadal. The Spaniard had been victorious in 65 of 93 career final round contests, and had succeeded in 27 of 40 Masters 1000 title round collisions. But seldom if ever has he beaten himself as badly as he did against a disciplined and determined Murray in Madrid. Reaching the final without losing a set and ousting two formidable players in Dimitrov and Berdych was highly encouraging for Nadal, but it was very discouraging for his passionate legion of worldwide admirers that he could turn in such a dismal performance after improving so markedly over the course of that week.
He has now slipped to No. 7 in the world, and has fallen out of the top five for the first time since May 2, 2005. He was only 18 back then and not until the following month did he win his first major at Roland Garros. Anything less than reaching the final in Rome this week would be a considerable setback for Nadal as he approaches the upcoming French Open. Nadal sorely needs to remind himself who he is and why he has established himself as one of the greatest players ever to step on a court. His deep humility is hurting him enormously at the moment.
As for Andy Murray, he must be delighted with the past fortnight. The tournament victory in Madrid at the Masters 1000 level was his biggest since winning Wimbledon in 2013. He has the second best record in the men’s game this year behind only Novak Djokovic. He is playing the finest clay court tennis of his career. He is moving into a crucial and potentially exhilarating phase of his career. For the time being at least, Murray would not trade places with anyone.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.