MADRID – Rafael Nadal is near his best again, and he showed it with an emphatic win over a rival he hadn’t beaten in three years.
Nadal ended his seven-match winless streak against Novak Djokovic with a 6-2, 6-4 win that put him in the Madrid Open final again on Saturday.
Nadal overpowered Djokovic, and converted on his third match point to earn his first victory against the second-ranked Serb since the 2014 French Open final. Nadal had lost 15 straight sets against Djokovic, and won only one of the last 12 matches against him in four years.
“To beat an opponent such as Novak, it gives you a lot of confidence. It shows you you’re working in the right way,” said Nadal, who has thrived after struggling with his game for two years.
On the women’s side, Simona Halep of Romania won her second straight Madrid title by defeating Kristina Mladenovic of France 7-5, 6-7 (5-7), 6-2 in nearly three hours, becoming the first player to successfully defend the title since Serena Williams in 2013.
“I feel great that I could defend this title,” Halep said. “It means a lot because it gives me confidence for the bigger tournaments.”
It was the first title of the season for the eighth-ranked Halep, who was the first player to make it to three Madrid finals. She lost to Maria Sharapova in 2014.
Halep thanked much-criticized Fed Cup coach Ilie Nastase after the match, but the 70-year-old’s role in the trophy presentation was labelled “irresponsible and unacceptable” by the WTA.
Halep was congratulated on court by Nastase as the Romanian received the trophy named after Nastase’s former doubles partner and Madrid Open owner Ion Tiriac.
Nastase has been banned from the French Open and Wimbledon after he was ejected from Romania’s Fed Cup clash with Great Britain last month for a series of foul-mouthed rants directed at British captain Anne Keothavong and No. 1 Johanna Konta, as well as umpires and members of the press.
“He had no place on court today,” said WTA CEO Steve Simon in a statement.
“He is currently under a provisional suspension by the ITF for his prior offensive actions and we revoked his credential privileges at WTA events while the investigation is being completed.
“It was both irresponsible and unacceptable of the Madrid Open to bestow him an official role.”
On the men’s side, it was another categorical win for Nadal in what has been a superb season for the fifth-ranked Spaniard, who will be trying to win his third straight title on Sunday. He can also tie Djokovic with 30 titles in Masters 1000 events.
It was Nadal’s 14th straight victory, and his tour-leading 33rd of the year.
The four-time Madrid champion will vie for the title against ninth-ranked Dominic Thiem of Austria, who ousted Pablo Cuevas of Uruguay 6-4, 6-4.
Thiem, who won the Rio de Janeiro title in February, lost the Barcelona Open final to Nadal last month.
It will be Nadal’s eighth final at his home tournament, and the first since losing to Andy Murray in 2015. Nadal last won in Madrid in 2014.
“I can’t be any happier,” Nadal said. “It means the world to me to make it to another final here in Madrid.”
Nadal has been playing some of his best tennis this year. He’s reached six finals this season and is coming off consecutive titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona.
“It was an important match for me because it meant continuing with the good dynamic that I’ve been carrying for several months,” Nadal said. “I knew that I had to play well. It’s true that he made some mistakes, but he fought until the end.”
Djokovic hasn’t reached a final since winning his first tournament of the year in Doha. This was his first semifinal since he won that title in January.
“I did try my best,” Djokovic said. “It wasn’t a very high quality of tennis from my side. Just his quality was very high. He managed to do whatever he wanted really, especially in the first set.”
Djokovic didn’t have to play the quarterfinal in Madrid because Kei Nishikori withdrew before the match because of a wrist injury.
With Cristiano Ronaldo and Olympic great Nadia Comaneci watching courtside, Nadal was aggressive from the start, and had 20 winners, including seven off his backhand.