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Stefanos Tsitsipas took down No. 2 Rafa Nadal in the Madrid Open semis. Can he top No. 1 Novak Djokovic in Sunday’s final? (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Stefanos Tsitsipas took down No. 2 Rafa Nadal in the Madrid Open semis. Can he top No. 1 Novak Djokovic in Sunday’s final? (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)|Associated Press
Tennis

ATP Tennis Sunday: Abrams analyzes and picks the Mutua Madrid Open final featuring Djokovic vs. Tsitsipas

The final will start on or after 12:30 pm EDT.

Neal Abrams

Neal Abrams

Mutua Madrid Open
Madrid, Spain
Sunday, May 11, 2019
Men’s finals

Stefanos Tsitsipas over Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic, the world’s No. 1 player, raised the level of his game when he needed to and beat the world’s second best clay court player, Austria’s Dominic Thiem, in two successive tiebreakers to reach the finals of the Madrid Open. Putting his pedal to the metal just when he needed to, Nole was calm, effective, and totally under control in winning a match that I felt he would falter in. I was particularly impressed when, serving in the first set, he was called for service time penalties twice in the same game, the second of which cost him a fault on his serve. Nole calmly stepped up to the baseline and hit a topspin second serve to the ad court without reacting at all to the umpire who made the call. From that moment on it appeared to me that The Joker was all business, and he certainly didn’t want his rhythm to be interrupted by a controversial time limit call. By not reacting, Nole kept his emotions in check, exhibited the ultimate in professionalism, and simply let his racket do his talking. You don’t get much closer than 7-6, 7-6, but Djokovic did what he needed to do at the exact time he needed to do it, and that’s one of the things that makes him the champion he is.

The other semi, between Spain’s Rafael Nadal and Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas, showcased shotmaking, exciting rallies, interesting strategy, and the beauty of volleying when volleys were needed in a match that was closer than the 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 score that Tsitsipas won by.

Nadal looked a bit shaky in the first set, and when Tsitsipas won it 6-4, I feared that Nadal would not have it in him to fight back. But I should have known better, because one of Nadal’s greatest attributes is his ability to fight until the bitter end, no matter where or whom he’s playing, and he didn’t let his Spanish fans down from that perspective. Rafa brought his best stuff out and ran away with the second set 6-2. His fans expected their guy to keep rolling and outclass the 20-year-old Greek in the third, but Tsitsipas would have none of it. He hung tough, often out-rallied Nadal from the baseline, and fought to get to net faster than Nadal could, and ultimately forced the Spaniard into uncharacteristic mistakes. Now, how close was it? Well, in a match that Tsitsipas won, Nadal actually won more points, 93 to 87. For those fans of Nadal who are concerned that their charge is starting to show cracks in his exterior, they may be comforted to learn that prior to this match, Rafa still boasted a 9-2 clay court record in 2019, with just two semi-final losses to his name: one in Monte-Carlo (Fognini) and one in Barcelona (Thiem). You can add this third loss to Tsitsipas to Nadal’s record, and although he is no longer invincible on clay, he is still the best player on that surface.

For the finals, I like Tsitsipas because he’s peaking at the right time here in Madrid. With a win in the finals, Tsitsipas will have beaten the word’s No. 5 (Thiem), No. 2 (Nadal) and No. 1 (Djokovick) in succession, and it will set him up to be a favorite to win the French Open, the start of which is just a couple of weeks away. There seem to be a lot of questions remaining to be answered by a lot of the high ranked players about how their 2019 will unfold, but no questions remain unanswered about Tsitsipas. He’s ready to challenge for the top of the mountain, and he’s ready now.