Rafael Nadal went into yesterday's final of the Madrid Masters having won his last 37 matches on clay, a run dating back to his defeat at the hands of Robin Soderling at the 2009 French Open. Novak Djokovic, his opponent, had won 33 matches in succession since last November, taking tournaments in Melbourne, Dubai, Indian Wells, Miami and Belgrade.
It was a match in which something had to give and, in front of his home crowd, it was Nadal who cracked. Djokovic prevailed 7-5, 6-4 to win his 32rd match in a row this year, the best start to a season since John McEnroe's 42 unbeaten matches in 1984. Nadal remains world No 1, but Djokovic is closing the gap and looks likely to overtake him in the next few weeks.
This was Djokovic's 24th title, his eighth in the Masters Series and his sixth on clay. Describing his achievement in keeping his unbeaten streak going as "unbelievable", he added: "I stepped on to the court today believing I could win. I needed to be aggressive and it was a great match."
Djokovic is only 23 and Nadal 24, yet this was their 24th meeting. The Spaniard had won 16 of their previous matches and all eight of their encounters on clay, but Djokovic has now won six of their last eight matches, including Masters Series finals earlier this year in Indian Wells and Miami.
A match between the world's two best players lived up to all expectations. There were some sensational rallies, both players striking the ball with enormous power and covering the court with great athleticism, and some wonderful shots, including an astonishing through-the-legs lobbed winner by Nadal at the start of the second set.
When they met in the Madrid semi-finals two years ago Nadal won in three sets after more than four hours. When Djokovic took the first set after an hour and eight minutes another marathon seemed on the cards, but from that point the Serb tightened his grip.
Nadal, who had beaten Roger Federer in three sets in Saturday's semi-finals, got off to the worst possible start, losing the first four games. Finding his rhythm immediately, Djokovic appeared to surprise the Spaniard with the sheer weight of his shots.
When he served at 5-3 and 30-0 Djokovic had a chance to create three set points, but with the court at his mercy he inexplicably hit the ball straight at his opponent, who cracked a backhand, cross-court winning pass. Djokovic then put a forehand into the net and a backhand wide before Nadal took the game with a thumping forehand.
More chances came Djokovic's way in the next game, which lasted 13 minutes. The world No 2 forced three set points, but scorned them with a missed return of serve, a forehand error and a backhand into the tramlines as Nadal levelled at 5-5.
The momentum appeared to have swung Nadal's way, but Djokovic won the next eight points in succession to take the set after an hour and eight minutes. Nevertheless luck was on his side when he took his fourth set point, a backhand striking the top of the net and trickling over the other side.
Nadal broke in the opening game of the second set, but Djokovic responded immediately. A cross-court backhand eventually gave the Serb three match points and he converted the second when Nadal sliced wide.
"I came up against a great player obviously – he's having a monster year," Nadal said afterwards. "He was better, you have to accept that."
The Spaniard added: "The world No 1 ranking is not in danger – it's finished. Let's not lie to ourselves, that's the reality. Nobody likes to lose. I have to see what's missing and work with a cool, open mind to decipher things and find the solutions."
Petra Kvitova won the women's title to maintain her steady progress. The 21-year-old Czech, who will climb into the world's top 10 for the first time in today's updated ranking list, beat Victoria Azarenka 7-6, 6-4. Kvitova, an aggressive player with big groundstrokes, hit 40 winners in the match to claim her third title of the year. "I think it's the best tennis that I've played," she said afterwards.
Azarenka broke down in tears at the end after hitting only 10 winners and making 21 unforced errors. Nevertheless, the 21-year-old from Belarus has enjoyed a fine run of late and will replace Francesca Schiavone at No 4 in today's rankings list.