Madrid Flashback: Rafael Nadal wins epic battle against Ivan Ljubicic

Sixteen years ago, the 19-year-old Rafael Nadal won the fourth Masters 1000 title and the 11th overall in the historic season that made him world no. 2 behind Roger Federer! The Spaniard won 79 matches and became the major force on clay with eight ATP titles on his beloved surface, including two Masters 1000 and a Major crown at Roland Garros. Rafa claimed titles in Canada, Beijing and Madrid on a hard court to wrap up a great year despite skipping Paris and the Masters Cup due to a left foot injury. Nadal’s last encounter of the season was one of the most thrilling ones he played in his early years on the Tour. Led by the home crowd at Madrid Masters, Rafa came from the brink of defeat to topple Ivan Ljubicic 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 in three hours and 53 minutes, in one of the longest Masters 1000 finals ever! Madrid was already the fourth Masters 1000 crown for the young Spaniard and the only one he won on an indoor hard surface, never winning another with a roof over his head.

Ljubicic arrived in the Spanish capital in a great spirit, winning Metz and Vienna in the previous two weeks and conquering 16 matches in a row before the Nadal clash! The Croat built two sets to love lead, took nine points more than the youngster and created 13 break chances. Still, that was not enough to cross the finish line first and claim his career-best title after falling short in the deciding tie break for a heartbreaking loss. Nadal played well during the entire week despite knee tendonitis, beating Victor Hanescu, Tommy Robredo, Radek Stepanek and Robby Ginepri in straight sets to reach the final. He had to survive over 80 winners from Ljubicic to emerge as a winner, passing all the challenges to lift the trophy in front of the partisan crowd. The Croat had 56 service winners and landed over 40 from his forehand, backhand and volley to keep the points on his racquet and dominate sets one and two.

Rafael Nadal needed almost four hours to prevail over Ivan Ljubicic in Madrod 2005.

On the other hand, Ivan had to make many unforced errors against such a strong rival from the baseline, and that was Nadal’s chance to get back on the scoreboard and stay in touch until the closing stages. Rafa tamed his shots nicely and fended off eight out of 13 break chances in eight different service games to limit the damage and stay competitive. Ivan played against nine break opportunities, and Rafa grabbed four breaks, enough to win sets three and four and get himself in a position to play with momentum on his side in the decider. Had Ivan found a way to win this clash, it would have been entirely deserved, as he succeeded in his intentions to overpower Rafa in the shortest points and stay in touch with him in the mid-range and longer rallies. Still, he could not create a more significant lead in the exchanges up to four strokes (91-80), having to settle with the runner-up spot despite a fantastic effort. The home favorite fired a forehand winner to break Ivan in the first game and held at 15 for a 2-0 lead.

Ljubicic broke back in game four after a return winner and did the same at 4-3 after Nadal’s poor forehand to forge the advantage and close the opener with four winners at 5-3 after 30 minutes. Rafa saved break chances to bring the second set’s first game home but could not do the same two games later after a loose forehand. Ivan cemented the break with a volley winner and moved 5-2 up with another return game following Nadal’s forehand error. Facing two break points in the eighth game, Ivan blasted four winners in a row to bring the game and the set home, moving closer to the finish line in under 70 minutes! From 30-0 down in the third set’s third game, Rafa grabbed four straight points for a critical hold that gave him a massive boost, as he broke Ivan in the next one for only his second lead. The Spaniard fended off three break points in game five to maintain the advantage and forced the Croat’s error at 5-3 to take the set and stay in contention after exactly two hours of play.

Ivan lost the edge, and Rafa broke him in the fourth set’s third game with a forehand winner to boost his confidence even higher. A few minutes later, the home star delivered another good hold with a forehand down the line winner for a 3-1 lead. Rafa needed more of those in the sixth game when he saved a break chance, hitting a service winner to create a 4-2 gap and holding at love with another in game eight to remain in front. Serving for the set at 5-4, Rafa held at 30 to send this exciting match into a decider in front of the partisan Spanish crowd that erupted in joy when Ivan sent a backhand long in the fourth set’s final point.

A fantastic volley winner gave Ljubicic two break points in the final set’s second game, and he grabbed a break after Nadal’s terrible backhand. The Spaniard broke back immediately after Ivan’s double fault and brought the eighth game home after two deuces to remain on the positive side. Four good holds sent them into a tie break, and Nadal opened a 3-0 lead with a beautiful forehand crosscourt winner. Two crucial points on serve moved the youngster 5-2 up, and he grabbed another mini-break after Ljubicic’s tired forehand for three match points. A teenager converted the first following another netted forehand from the Croat to fall to the ground in disbelief, starting a massive celebration of what has been one of his most memorable triumphs on the Tour ever.

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