Those who doubted whether Rafael Nadal would ever recapture his former glories were contemplating another question last night: might the Spaniard be even better than ever? Twelve months after defeat to Roger Federer in the final of the Madrid Masters led to the most barren spell of his career, Nadal beat his greatest rival in the same tournament to become the first man ever to win three clay-court Masters titles in the same season.
Nadal, who will today reclaim his world No 2 ranking behind Federer, followed his triumphs in Monte Carlo and Rome with a 6-4, 7-6 victory, his 15th in 15 matches this year on his favourite surface. The French Open starts in six days' time and the 23-year-old Majorcan will be the overwhelming favourite to claim his fifth Paris title.
This was Nadal's 14th win in 21 matches against Federer and the psychological benefit could be huge. Federer won the French Open for the first time last year, but he has never beaten Nadal at Roland Garros and has won just two of their 12 meetings on clay.
Queen Sofia of Spain was on hand to present the prizes, but the Madrid public had come to acclaim the king of clay. Nadal has hit some of the lowest points in his career over the last year – it was only six weeks ago that he won his first title for 11 months in Monte Carlo – but has quickly got back into the winning habit.
This was his 39th title and his 18th Masters Series victory, which puts him on top of the all-time list, one ahead of Andre Agassi and two in front of Federer. Since 2005 Nadal has lost just six of his 174 matches on clay.
While the 17th final between the modern game's two greatest players was not one of their better contests – there were some spectacular winning shots, but both men made plenty of mistakes – it could prove to have been the perfect appetiser before the main dishes at the forthcoming Grand Slam events in Paris, Wimbledon and New York.
Although you cannot help wondering whether Nadal's knees will continue standing up to the strain, the Spaniard is starting to look a more complete player than he was in the past. His serve has improved markedly, while his driven backhand has become a major attacking weapon.
As for Federer, it is never wise to judge the greatest player of all time away from the Grand Slam arena. His form has picked up with every tournament during this clay-court season and, although he needs to find more consistency, nobody can match his ability to peak when it really matters.
Federer started confidently enough, with two aces in the opening game, but Nadal made the first break to lead 2-1. The Spaniard played his worst game of the match to allow Federer to break back immediately, but at 3-3 he broke again.
When Nadal served at 5-4 Federer failed to take advantage of four break points. Nadal leapt in the air in celebration after converting his first set point with a forehand cross-court winner after Federer's indecisive approach shot.
Although Nadal again drew first blood in the second set, Federer once again broke back immediately. At 2-2 Nadal played a superb game to break for the fourth time, finishing off with a thumping backhand winner down the line, but at 4-3 the Spaniard was broken again.
Federer set the early pace in the tie-break, but from 2-4 down Nadal won five of the last six points. The final point, after two hours and 11 minutes, was bizarre, Federer making contact only with the Madrid air after the ball took a horrible bounce. As the crowd stood in raucous celebration, Nadal lay face down on the court. Nobody loves clay quite like the Spaniard.