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Spanish tennis player Rafael Nadal poses with his trophy as he celebrates his victory over Austrian tennis player Dominic Thiem at the end of their ATP Madrid Open final match in Madrid, on May 14, 2017. Nadal won 7-6 and 6-4. / AFP PHOTO / OSCAR DEL POZO (Photo credit should read OSCAR DEL POZO/AFP/Getty Images)

Steve Flink: Nadal Captures His Third Title in a Row on the Clay

It has been a very long time since the redoubtable Rafael Nadal has celebrated a stretch as golden as this one. By coming through on the red clay courts to secure the Mutua Madrid Open with a final round triumph over a remarkably resolute Dominic Thiem, the crafty and beguiling Spaniard took his third title in a row on the dirt, raising his winning streak to 15 matches in a row. Nadal had not swept three consecutive titles since the summer of 2013, when he was victorious in Montreal, Cincinnati and at the U.S. Open. For this incomparable left-hander to take control of the clay court circuit so unassailably as he approaches the age of 31 is a staggering feat.

To be sure, clay has always been his domain, and no one can convincingly dispute that he must be regarded as the greatest player in the history of the game on that surface. Year after year, he looks forward to this part of the season, and his history of high success on the clay surely sends shivers down the spines of almost all who compete against him on the dirt. But the fact remains that Nadal has endured so many hard setbacks since winning his ninth French Open crown in 2014 that even his most ardent boosters must have wondered if his finest days were behind him. They were surely worried about what to expect from the Spaniard when the authentic 2017 clay campaign commenced in Monte Carlo.

Reflect briefly on the litany of issues confronted by Nadal over the last three years. He missed the 2014 U.S. Open with an injury to his right wrist and could not defend his title in New York. That fall, he dealt with an appendicitis that kept him out of the ATP Finals. In 2015, he never seemed entirely sure of himself or his body, and did not advance beyond the quarterfinals at any Grand Slam championship. Last year, Nadal had looked strong on the clay in claiming two titles but he had to withdraw from the French Open prior to his third round contest with a left wrist injury that also kept him out of Wimbledon and forced him to close down his season early during the autumn.

But somehow Nadal gathered himself during the off season, refused to dwell on his disappointments, and approached 2017 with vigor, purpose and his customary deep and unwavering determination. He made it to three hard court finals including the Australian Open, but from my point of view he still did not look or play like the essential Nadal of years gone by. While Roger Federer was magnificent in rallying from 1-3 down in the fifth set to oust Nadal in the final at Melbourne—sealing an 18th Grand Slam title in the process—Nadal still looked only sporadically brilliant. Sporadic is not a word we usually associate with the Spaniard.

Many seasoned observers believed Nadal would avenge that Australian Open setback to Federer when they clashed in the round of 16 at Indian Wells, but the Swiss gave a sublime and signature performance to crush the prideful Spaniard 6-2, 6-3. Federer was astounding but Nadal was outmaneuvered and overwhelmed on that occasion; he did not play his kind of tennis. He took on Federer again in the final of Miami, looking to reassert himself and regain his old authority, but was soundly beaten once more in straight sets, bowing 6-3, 6-4. Nadal never broke Federer's serve at either Indian Wells or Miami.

But he moved back onto his beloved clay, and more than righted the ship. Nadal took Monte Carlo at the cost of only one set, and swept through Barcelona without dropping any sets. That set the stage for Madrid, but Nadal woke up late the week before with an ear infection. After a first round bye, he looked somewhat weakened and sluggish during a three set, second round meeting with Fabio Fognini, but survived. The Spaniard cast aside an injury plagued Nick Kyrgios 6-3, 6-1 as the Australian seldom served at full force. In the quarters, Nadal accounted for David Goffin 7-6 (3), 6-2 with a flourish at the end, and then he ended a seven match losing streak against Novak Djokovic in the penultimate round—more on that match later.

In the final, the No. 4 seed took on No,. 8 seed Thiem, the same man he faced in the final of Barcelona a few weeks ago. On that occasion, once Nadal broke Thiem with the Austrian serving at 4-5 in a hotly contested opening set, it was not much of a battle thereafter; the Spaniard rolled to a 6-4, 6-1 triumph.

Their Madrid confrontation was much closer and the level of play was considerably higher. Thiem was thoroughly composed and was measuring his shots a lot more consistently than he had in Barcelona. Appearing in his first Masters 1000 title round skirmish, the 23-year-old acquitted himself commendably. His serve was potent and precise. He kept Nadal off guard with his directional variety in both the deuce and ad courts. He controlled the tempo at times with his crackling forehand, and his topspin backhand crosscourt was a decidedly improved version of that same shot in Barcelona.

Hence, the Austrian pushed Nadal awfully hard across an arduous afternoon. Nadal clearly wanted this title very badly and did not want to disappoint his home nation's fans, who cheered him on unabashedly throughout the evening. The Spaniard was somewhat tense but the quality of his ball striking remained extraordinary. He did not allow Thiem to overpower him too frequently from the backcourt, finding his range admirably off the forehand, driving through his two-handed backhand with impressive depth and pace, serving cagily. The Spaniard moved his serve around skillfully and never allowed Thiem to get grooved on his returns.

Yet it was Thiem who made the first significant move of the match. He broke the Spaniard in the third game. Nadal was ahead 40-30, but Thiem lofted a high and reasonably deep lob that Nadal countered with an overhead down the middle. Thiem had time to crack a forehand pass low crosscourt, catching Nadal by surprise. The Spaniard popped his backhand volley up, and in came Thiem to steer a forehand past Nadal for a winner. He then forced Nadal into a sliced backhand error before claiming the next point in style, scampering forward to reach a drop shot, sending a backhand down the line, and punching a backhand volley into the clear off his opponent's backhand passing shot down the line.

Thiem had seized the initiative early on. Despite missing all five first serves in the following game, he held on at 15 with a backhand winner off a short ball from Nadal. It was 3-1 for the Austrian. Nadal opened the fifth game with a double fault but he held at 15 and broke back for 3-3 as Thiem bungled a backhand volley into the net at 30-40. Nadal had climbed back to 3-3. He double faulted at 15-15 in the seventh game but held on after one deuce with a forehand drop shot winner.

Thiem built a 40-15 lead as he served at 3-4 but Nadal persistently brought the score back to deuce. Unruffled, Thiem released a pair of un-returnable first serves, sending both deliveries down the T. Nadal held at 30 for 5-4, and went to work in the following game, making a concerted effort to seal the set. He reached 0-40 on the Thiem serve, standing at triple set point, poised to exploit a big opportunity. But Thiem responded to this crisis with extraordinary resolve and composure. He drove a forehand with interest deep to Nadal's backhand and drew an error. The Austrian followed with a wide serve to the Nadal backhand in the deuce court, coaxing a short return from the Spaniard. Thiem thumped a forehand winner down the line to make it 30-40. Now he took advantage of another short return from Nadal and walloped a forehand winner into a vacant space. He had arrived at deuce. After another deuce, Thiem held for 5-5 on a return error from Nadal off the forehand and an ace. Thiem had erased three set points without blinking. Nadal answered with a love hold for 6-5 and then Thiem held at 30 for 6-6, snapping an overhead cleanly into the clear.

And so the set would be settled in a tie-break. Thiem gained an immediate mini-break for 1-0 by out-dueling Nadal in a 19 stroke exchange with a bruising and unanswerable forehand. Nadal then established leads of 2-1 and 3-2, and surged to 4-2 by responding to a Thiem smash with a blazing forehand pass that Thiem could not handle on the volley. Thiem took the next point on serve when Nadal's purely produced forehand crosscourt passing shot landed wide.

The Spaniard moved to 5-3 on serve but lost the next point as Thiem once more made excellent use of the lob, lofting a high one with good depth. Nadal's overhead was directed down the middle for safety and Thiem worked his way back into the point, which he won with a forehand crosscourt winner. Serving at 4-5, Thiem was unshakable and Nadal briefly lost his way off the backhand, missing a pair of shots off that side. Suddenly and unexpectedly, Nadal was serving at 5-6 and set point down. But the Spaniard went on the attack, taking a forehand early and approaching the net, rushing Thiem into a backhand passing shot error. It was 6-6.

This sequence was spellbinding. Serving the thirteenth point, Nadal was pulled off the court by a finely angled forehand crosscourt from Thiem. The lefty spectacularly unleashed a crosscourt backhand winner for a 7-6 lead, but Thiem wasn't budging in the least. An accurate first serve down the T set up a winning forehand, deadlocking the tie-break at 7-7. He then advanced to 8-7 and his second set point with a piece of good fortune. His approach shot gave Nadal a clear opening for a forehand passing shot, and the Spaniard sent it crosscourt with gusto.. But Thiem somehow was there for a backhand drop volley winner.

Nadal remained implacable. His wide serve opened up the court for a forehand down the line winner: 8-8. That may have rattled Thiem slightly. He totally miss-hit a forehand, allowing Nadal to move to 9-8 and a fifth set point opportunity. This one he exploited. Thiem served wide to the forehand and Nadal's return was relatively short. But Thiem drove his aggressive forehand long. Tie-break to Nadal, 10-8. After an hour and 17 minutes, he had at last put the set in his victory column.

Thiem was understandably deflated in the opening game of the second set. Ahead 30-15, he erred flagrantly off the forehand on the next three points. Nadal had the immediate break for 1-0. He then prevailed in a tense second game that featured four deuces and one break point for the Austrian. Nadal willed his way through it, holding for 2-0 with an ace down the T. The next four games all went to the server at love, leaving Nadal in the lead at 4-2. He was two games away from a fifth title in Madrid, from a 15th match victory in a row, from putting himself in the enviable position of being the prohibitive favorite at the upcoming French Open.

But getting to that destination was not going to be easy, not in the least. Thiem was simply unwilling to surrender, even if he was playing Nadal in Spain, regardless of the daunting situation he found himself in. He held on in a deuce game for 3-4, closing it stylishly with a forehand winner down the line off a short ball. Serving at 40-15 in the following game, Nadal raced forward to retrieve a half-volleyed drop shot from Thiem. The Spaniard angled a forehand crosscourt and Thiem tried to pass him off the backhand. Nadal lunged acrobatically to his left for a forehand volley winner: 5-3 to the Spaniard.

Nadal seemed certain to finish it off in the following game. A magnificent forehand down the line winner on the run took him to 15-30 on Thiem's serve. Another scorching forehand down the line that gave Thiem no play whatsoever and made it 15-40, double match point for the crowd favorite. Thiem saved the first one when Nadal's forehand return hung on the net cord but refused to go over. Thiem erased the second with a wide serve that set up an immaculate backhand approach hit with excellent depth. Nadal's backhand pass landed wide. Soon Thiem landed at 4-5.

He had forced the renowned Spaniard to serve the match out in the tenth game, and Nadal had considerable difficulty doing that. He netted a forehand drop shot for 0-15, and was forced into a backhand error for 0-30. He took the next point but uncharacteristically missed a forehand down the line long and it was 15-40. Thiem would improbably have two chances to make it to 5-5. Nadal, however, was clear in his convictions. He wanted this match to end immediately on his terms, without the second set getting as complicated as the first. The southpaw served an ace out wide in the deuce court for 30-40 and then served-and-volleyed on the next point—but there was no need for the volley. His wide serve provoked an errant backhand return from Thiem.

It was deuce. But Thiem quickly garnered a third break point, which Nadal wiped away unhesitatingly with a forehand winner up the line. A double fault from Nadal gave Thiem a fourth break point, but Nadal went wide with the first serve to set up a heavy forehand behind the Austrian that caught Thiem off guard on the backhand side. It was deuce for the third time. Nadal aced Thiem out wide to earn a third match point; Thiem saved it with a clean winner down the line off the forehand. Both men were playing majestically. Now Nadal drove an inside out forehand with terrific depth to open up an avenue for a drop shot winner. Fittingly, Nadal wrapped up the victory on his fourth match point by sending a backhand deep down the line, following it in, and elegantly angling away a backhand volley crosscourt for a winner. He had won deservedly 7-6 (8), 6-4, taking his 72nd career title on the ATP World Tour, winning his 52nd tournament on clay.

Making this tournament triumph all the more rewarding for Nadal was his surprisingly decisive 6-2, 6-4 dismissal of Djokovic in the semifinals. Not since he won Doha at the start of his 2017 campaign had the Serbian been in a semifinal. He had edged past Nicolas Almagro 6-1, 4-6, 7-5 in his opening assignment in the second round of Madrid, rescuing himself from 0-3 down in the final set, serving his way out of a 4-5 predicament as well. Djokovic improved markedly in a 6-4, 7-5 win over Feliciano Lopez, bringing down the left-hander without losing his serve.

Due to meet Kei Nishikori in the quarterfinals, Djokovic got a walkover instead as the perennially injured Japanese player elected to forfeit because of an ailing wrist. And so the defending champion clashed with Nadal for the first time since their memorable meeting in Rome a year ago, when the Serbian held back the Spaniard 7-5, 7-6 in the quarterfinals for his seventh straight victory over his old rival.

Djokovic had extended his lead in the rivalry to 26-23 with that win, but he has been mired in a dismal slump this season while Nadal has recovered much of his old dynamism, competitive joy and self conviction. From the outset, Nadal set the tempo from the baseline. He controlled most of the rallies, served with immense accuracy, and made the patterns work entirely in his favor against a man who no longer resembles the player who won four majors in a row from Wimbledon in 2015 through the French Open last year. The Spaniard had the upper hand when he went crosscourt off the forehand to the Djokovic backhand; in turn, Nadal was so stellar on his backhand crosscourt that he broke down the Serbian's forehand. Nadal soared to a 4-0 first set lead and won it 6-2. He opened up a 2-0 second set lead after Djokovic made three flagrant forehand unforced errors to lose his serve in the first game.

Djokovic rallied for 2-2 but Nadal broke again for 3-2 and served for the match at 5-4, advancing to double match point at 40-15. Djokovic saved the first with a superb forehand return of serve leading eventually to a forehand winner; he wiped away the second when Nadal missed on a difficult forehand down the line winner attempt. Djokovic took the next point and then had a break point for 5-5. Nadal saved it with a gorgeous backhand down the line drop shot, keeping the ball so low that Djokovic could not dig it out and lift it over the net. Nadal finished it off confidently from there. His performance was exemplary; Djokovic's was desultory. But the Serbian gave a typically dignified press conference, lauding Nadal for being the better player, offering no excuses for his own showing. As usual, Djokovic displayed sportsmanship of the highest order with his response to a defeat; one of these days, perhaps soon, critics will applaud the Serbian for the way he consistently handles tough losses.

Thiem, meanwhile, was victorious in the match of the week over Grigor Dimitrov. They met in the round of 16, and Thiem was astonishing under pressure. He trailed 3-6 (triple match point) in the final set tie-break but a first serve to the forehand in the ad court was too good and a deep approach set up a forehand volley winner. Now Dimitrov served at 6-5, with a chance on his third match point to end it all. He missed a down the line forehand from a deep position, unwisely going for an against the odds winner. Dimitrov advanced to 7-6 and a fourth match point, but Thiem took that one away with one swing of the racket, releasing an unstoppable first serve out wide to the backhand.

Thiem moved to 8-7 and his first match point but Dimitrov forced the Austrian into an error off the forehand and then took the next point. Dimitrov was at match point for the fifth time. His return was deep enough to back Thiem up, but somehow the Austrian unleashed an astonishing inside in forehand winner. He came through at last from there to win 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (9). After that stunning escape, Thiem won in straight sets over Borna Coric and Pablo Cuevas. Coric had upended top seeded Andy Murray 6-3, 6-3 in the round of 16. Murray never looked like winning that match. He is as out of sorts right now as Djokovic as they head to Rome for a final tournament appearance prior to Roland Garros.

Nadal, or course, will be the man to beat at Roland Garros, no matter what happens this week in Rome. I have not seen him play at this sustained high level since he won those three tournaments in a row back in the summer of 2013. He is reinvigorated. He is unrelenting. His backhand may well be better than ever. His capacity to flatten that stroke out, drive it deep crosscourt and send it down the line with accuracy is a sight to behold. His serve is more productive at the moment than perhaps it has ever been because of his variety of locations and his propensity to move it around skillfully in both boxes. And his forehand has more work on it than we have witnessed for many years; his depth is consistently better off that side than it has been in a long while. Moreover, his propensity to defend with uncanny regularity against big hitters like Thiem is mind boggling. In Madrid, it was almost impossible to drive a ball out of the Spaniard's reach on his forehand side.

Rafael Nadal is a man less than three weeks away from turning 31, playing a brand of tennis that reflects both his experience and his revitalization, enjoying what he is doing immensely. Will anyone prevent this singularly appealing Spaniard from collecting a tenth French Open and 15th Grand Slam tournament singles title in June? I think not.

Read more articles by Steve Flink

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