For Rafael Nadal, the formula has been simple thus far during the clay season — step on the court, play excellent tennis, win matches and break records.
After claiming historic 11th titles at Monte-Carlo and Barcelona, the World No. 1 has not stopped. Nadal extended the number of consecutive sets he was won on clay to 50 with his victory at the Mutua Madrid Open on Thursday, defeating No. 13 seed Diego Schwartzman 6-3, 6-4 to eclipse John McEnroe’s Open Era record of 49 straight sets won on a single surface (carpet, 1984).
“I really don’t think much about that. All these things, probably after I finish my career will be the time to think about it,” Nadal said. “I won a difficult match against a very difficult player that played well.”
The one-hour, 44-minute triumph is Nadal’s 14th straight since stepping on the clay this year — a run of 30 consecutive sets. Only one of those sets — 7-5 against Martin Klizan in Barcelona — was closer than 6-4. Nadal continues his pursuit of a record sixth trophy in Madrid, as he also attempts to extend his mark of ATP World Tour Masters 1000 titles to 32, which would put him two ahead of Novak Djokovic.
There was not much that Schwartzman did wrong in front of the evening crowd, doing well to stick close to the baseline as much as possible during rallies to prevent the Spaniard from dictating the entire match with his powerful lefty forehand.
But Nadal consistently took advantage of the Argentine’s deep return position to stay on top of points in his own service games, winning 68 per cent of his service points to Schwartzman’s 58 per cent.
Nadal did slip once with a set and a break lead, as Schwartzman broke to even the score at 4-4 in the second set. But the Spaniard immediately broke back when the World No. 16 double-faulted. And this time, Nadal did not let slip his advantage, drilling an inside-in forehand on match point, forcing a backhand error out of Schwartzman to bring his sets-won streak to 50.
The top seed will face a familiar foe in the quarter-finals in a rematch of the 2017 Madrid championship match against Dominic Thiem. The Austrian battled back from a set and a break down to beat Croatian Borna Coric 2-6, 7-6(5), 6-4.
“Very tough match. Especially here on this surface and even more in altitude. His bounces and topspin are very high and difficult to control,” Nadal said. “I need to be ready for tomorrow. It will be a very tough match to play but it’s a good opportunity to play against one of the best players of the world.”
Thiem and Nadal met in last year’s Madrid final, which Nadal won, and the Spaniard leads their FedEx ATP Head2Head series 6-2.
The Austrian showed his resiliency to fight past Coric, who was looking to reach his third ATP World Tour Masters 1000 quarter-final of the season (Indian Wells, Miami). Thiem was broken in the ninth game of the second set, and Coric served for the match at 5-4. But the Austrian broke back and smashed a forehand winner on his fifth set point to force the decider.
Coric, though, still had the upper hand as Thiem had to erase three break points during a 15-point game to make it 4-4 in the third set. But Thiem, energised by his efforts, won the final two games to make his way into the last eight in Madrid.
“It feels like a great victory. I didn’t play the way I wanted or the way I was preparing for. In the first set, he was starting really good. I couldn’t counter at all. Then the first set was gone pretty quickly. I was almost out of the match, out of the tournament at 4-5 in the second,” Thiem said.
“From this moment on actually I picked up my game… In the close moments and the third set, I played my best tennis… It’s a great win for me. He’s in a terrific form. He played two amazing matches here.”
Did You Know?
The last player to beat Rafael Nadal on clay is his quarter-final opponent in Madrid: Dominic Thiem. The Austrian defeated Nadal last year in Rome.