January 6, 2008: The day Mikhail Youzhny gave Nadal the heaviest loss of his career

Every day Tennis Majors looks back at the biggest moments in tennis history. Today, we go back to 2008 to witness how, in the final of the Chennai Open, Mikhail Youzhny routed world No 2, Rafael Nadal, 6-0, 6-1 in only 57 minutes

Mikhail Youzhny, US Open 2010 Tennis : US Open 2010 – Flushing Meadow – 09.09.2010 – J11 – 1/4 – Mikhail Youzhny (RUS)

What happened exactly on that day

On this day, January 6, 2008, in the final of the Chennai Open, world No 19, Mikhail Youzhny, steamrolled Rafael Nadal, world No 2 at the time, 6-0, 6-1. The Spaniard had not fully recovered from a nearly four-hour semi-final clash against countryman Carlos Moya. It was the heaviest loss of his career, and, 15 years later, he has never been defeated in such a lopsided match since 

The players: Mikhhail Youzhny and Rafael Nadal

  • Mikhil Youzhny – talented, volatile Russian with beautiful backhand

Mikhail Youzhny, born in 1982, entered the top 100 for the first time in 2002. That same year, he made himself famous when, at the age of 20, he clinched the Davis Cup title, defeating Paul-Henri Mathieu in the deciding match after coming back from two sets down (3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4). It was the first time Russia ever won this prestigious competition.

Youzhny was known for his trademark one-handed backhand and his celebration: every time he won a match, he would give the crowd a military salute – a habit he probably got from his father, a colonel in the Russian army. The Russian remained a solid top 50 player, until he took his career to a new level in 2006 when he reached the US Open semi-finals (defeated by Andy Roddick, 6-7, 6-0, 7-6, 6-3).

In 2007, he briefly entered the top 10 for the first time, a few months after he claimed the most important of his three career titles in Rotterdam, defeating Ivan Ljubicic in the final (6-2, 6-4). At the start of 2008, he was world No 19.

Mikhail Youzhny - Roland-Garros 2015
Mikhail Youzhny – Roland-Garros 2015
  • Rafael Nadal, already world No 2, undisputed King of Clay

At the start of 2008, Rafael Nadal, the 21 year old Majorcan, was world No 2  since July 2005, shortly after his first title at Roland-Garros at the age of 19.  Already seen as the greatest clay-court player of all-time, he had only lost one match on that surface in three years, and he had never been defeated yet at Roland-Garros, where he triumphed in 2005, 2006 and 2007.

He became Federer’s nightmare, stopping him three times at the French Open (2005, 2006, 2007), and beating him up to four times in 2006, a year when only two players managed to beat the Swiss – the other being Andy Murray. Nadal was not to be challenged on clay, but he was also improving on other surfaces. He managed to win two Masters Series tournaments on hard court in 2005 (Toronto and Madrid), but he also started to perform where no one expected him to, due to his game style: on grass. In fact, he reached the final in Wimbledon in 2006 and 2007, and the second time, he pushed Federer to a five-set combat (7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 2-6, 6-2).

However, on hard court, his Grand Slam records were far from being as great, as he had only reached the quarter-finals once at the US Open (in 2006, defeated by Mikhail Youzhny, 6-3, 5-7, 7-6, 6-1) and once at the Australian Open (in 2007, defeated by Fernando Gonzalez, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3).

Rafael Nadal in the stands of Hamburg's main court, in 2008
Rafael Nadal in the stands of Hamburg’s main court, in 2008

The place: Chennai, India

The Indian Open, established in 1996, was held in New Dehli the first year, but it moved to Chennai as early as 1997. It was played on outdoor hard courts on the first week of the season, and for this reason, although its prize money was not exceptional, it often attracted great players. Amongst the former champions were Grand Slam champions such as Patrick Rafter (1998) and Carlos Moya (2004, 2005).

The facts: Youzhny cruises past exhausted Nadal

On paper, the final of the 2008 Chennai Open was more than promising, as it featured the top seed, world No 2 Rafael Nadal, and the fourth seed, world No 19 Mikhail Youzhny. Although the Spaniard led 6-3 in their head-to-head, their record was 3-3 on hard courts, and the Russian had famously eliminated him in the quarter-finals of the 2006 US Open (6-3, 5-7, 7-6, 6-1). 

It would have been hard to imagine that in the end, Youzhny would rout the world No 2 in less than one hour, 6-0, 6-1, giving him the heaviest beating of his already great career. However, his performance was not the only reason for this easy win: Nadal had had less than 24 hours to recover from a semi-final marathon against his friend Carlos Moya. Against his countryman, the three-time Roland-Garros had battle for 3 hours and 54 minutes (6-7, 7-6, 7-6) to win the longest three-set match on the Tour in 15 years. 

It was then understandable that on the following day, he struggled to move and was outplayed in every aspect of the game by an opponent who, on top of that, delivered a great performance. 

“This victory is a present from Rafa to me,” said Youzhny, according to the BBC website. ” didn’t win today, Rafa just lost the match because he couldn’t move well. (…) “I did not think it would be so easy. I thought he would come back strongly in the second set but once I broke him in the fourth game, I knew I only had to ensure I did not make mistakes.”

On the other hand, Nadal still praised his opponent’s performance and found himself satisfied with his shape before the upcoming Australian Open.

“Mikhail played unbelievable tennis and deserved to win. I will now go to Melbourne and practice for a week and hopefully I will be at my best at the Open. The good thing is I leave this tournament without any injury. It has been a good start to the year for me. I have had good practice.”

Rafael Nadal, Australian Open, 2021
Rafael Nadal, Australian Open, 2021

What next: Nadal and Youzhny lose to Tsonga at Australian Open

A few weeks later, at the Australian Open, Youzhny and Nadal would both be defeated by the same player: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who would beat the Russian in the quarter-finals (7-5, 6-0, 7-6) and the Spaniard in the semi-finals (6-2, 6-3, 6-2). 

No player would ever beat Nadal so heavily in the following years. It would also be Youzhny’s last win against the Spaniard, and in their seven following encounters, which happened on all surfaces, he would only manage to clinch one set.

Through his career, Mikhail Youzhny would climb as high as world No 8 (in 2008 and 2010), accumulate 10 ATP titles and reach the quarter-finals in all of the four Grand Slam tournaments, making his way into the US Open semi-finals a second time in 2010 (defeated by Nadal, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4). He would retire from the Tour in 2018. 

Despite this tough start, 2008 would remain one of Nadal’s greatest seasons: after having claimed a fourth Roland-Garros title, he would finally triumph at Wimbledon, defeating Roger Federer in one of the greatest match in tennis history, before reaching world No 1 for the first time. After having won the Australian Open in 2009, Nadal would complete the career Grand Slam at the US Open in 2010, at the age of 24.

At the beginning of 2023, the Spaniard would hold a record total of 22 major titles, having claimed a record of 14 titles at Roland-Garros, as well as four at the US Open, two at Wimbledon and two at the Australian Open. 

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