May 17, 2009: The day Federer beat Nadal on clay in Madrid

Every day, Tennis Majors takes you back in time to relive a tennis event which happened on this specific day. On May 17, 2009, Roger Federer defeated Rafael Nadal on his home soil. A milestone victory before Roland-Garros

17 May 2021
Nadal-Federer On this day 17_5

What happened exactly on that day?

On this day, May 17, 2009, Roger Federer prevailed against Rafael Nadal on clay only for the second time in 12 encounters. On top of that, it happened in the final in Madrid, in front of the Spaniard’s home crowd. Although Nadal was exhausted by a four-hour semi-final against Novak Djokovic the day before, it was still an important achievement for Federer, a week away from Roland-Garros. It was a sign that this year, after months of struggle, things were finally going his way in his quest for the French Grand Slam.

The guys involved : Federer and Nadal, the rivals

• Roger Federer, now simply World No.2

Roger Federer was 27 years old in May 2009, and was going through a difficult time in his career. He had outrageously dominated the game in the years 2004-2007, winning almost everything except Roland-Garros, the only major title he was still chasing. Rafael Nadal was the main reason Federer had not won Roland-Garros yet:  he lost against the Spaniard in the final in 2006, 2007, and in 2008, a challenging year for the Swiss. First, young Novak Djokovic defeated him in the Australian Open semi-final (7-5, 6-3, 7-6), but the worst was yet to come.

His rival Rafael Nadal, after destroying him in a painful Roland-Garros final (6-3, 6-1, 6-0), had managed to defeat him in his own garden at Wimbledon, after a five-set thriller (6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7). The Spaniard also took over the world no.1 spot that Federer had held for 237 consecutive weeks.

Rock bottom was only reached at the 2009 Australian Open, when Federer lost again to his nemesis in five sets (7-5, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-2), and the Swiss could not hold back his tears during the trophy ceremony.

At this stage in 2009, Federer had not only become Nadal’s challenger, but he had also been defeated by Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Stan Wawrinka. For the first time since 2000,  Federer had not claimed a single title in the first four months of the year. Journalists had begun to talk about his decline.

• Rafael Nadal, the King of Clay and World No.1

Rafael Nadal was only 22, but his achievements had already secured him a place in tennis history. He remained undefeated in Roland-Garros: since his first appearance, in 2005, four times he had participated, four times he was the champion. No one had even managed to push him into a fifth set there.

Besides, not only was he considered almost unbeatable on clay, having lost only two matches since his loss against Igor Andreev in Valencia, in April 2005, but he had now improved his game and had claimed three of the last four Grand Slams on different surfaces.

He reached the world No 1 on August 18, 2008 and it seemed that no one could prevent the Spaniard from dominating the tour, as he had already collected five trophies in 2009, including the Australian Open, as well as three Masters 1000 events (Indian Wells, Monte-Carlo, Rome). He seemed to be on his way to a fifth consecutive Roland-Garros title without anyone to challenge him.

The place : Caja Majica in Madrid

The city of Madrid had hosted a Masters 1000 tournament since 2002. However, until 2008, the event was held in October on indoor courts, at the Madrid Arena. In 2009, the ATP calendar was changed and the Madrid Open was moved to spring, taking the slot previously held by the Hamburg Open in the Masters 1000 category.

It was now played on clay at the Caja Magica, a brand new complex built for the occasion, displaying three courts with a retractable roof. The location was also in altitude (700 meters), which impacted the game, making the balls travel faster as well as bounce higher, and thus harder to control. 

The facts : Federer wins in straight sets

On May 17, 2009, the Spanish crowd was about to witness the 20th encounter between Federer and Nadal, the two men who had ruled the tour since 2005. At this stage, Nadal was up 13-6 in their head-to-head, but he was up 9-1 on clay, and had dashed Federer’s dream of winning Roland-Garros four times already. Furthermore, he had won their five last matches, including on grass at Wimbledon and on hard court in Australia. The last time Federer had prevailed over the Spaniard was at the 2007 Masters Cup, 17 months before. 

Needless to say, Nadal should have been the favourite, but the day before, the odds changed when Rafa had to spend four hours and two minutes on court to beat Novak Djokovic, 3-6, 7-6, 7-6. In this amazing semi-final, which was at the time the longest best-of-three sets match ever played, Nadal had to save three match points before he sealed his victory, 11-9 in the deciding tie-break.

Furthermore, he had called the physio several times, appearing to have an issue with his knee. Could he recover on time to beat Federer? Nadal had done so at the Australian Open, recovering from a five-hour marathon against Fernando Verdasco in the semi-final to beat the Swiss in five sets in the final. 

Using the fast conditions to his advantage, Federer played an aggressive game right from the beginning. Attacking Nadal’s backhand, the Swiss came to the net more than he did against the Spaniard in most of their earlier clay court showdowns. Meanwhile, Nadal was not moving as fast as usual and, despite a few spectacular passing shots of his own, lost the first set, 6-4.

In the second set, Federer did not release the pressure and although Rafa tried to hold on, the Swiss broke him as early as 2-2 and didn’t leave him any chance to break back. After one hour and 20 minutes of great aggressive tennis, hitting 25 winners, Federer claimed his first title of the year and his second win against Nadal on clay. He also reminded the world not to count him out as a contender for the Roland-Garros crown.

In the press conference, after dismissing questions about his knee, which had bothered him during the semi-final, Nadal looked for no excuses and instead praised Federer’s performance.

What next? Nadal still the best on clay

That year, the impossible would eventually happen. Nadal would be defeated (6-2, 6-7, 6-4, 7-6) in the fourth round at Roland-Garros, by Robin Soderling, whom he had outplayed in Rome 6-1, 6-0 just two weeks ago. Although that would be good news for Federer, it would also put more pressure on the Swiss’ shoulders as suddenly he was expected to win in Paris.

The day after Nadal’s shocking loss in Paris, Federer would overcome a two-set deficit against Tommy Haas (6-7, 5-7, 6-4, 6-0, 6-2). After a thrilling semi-final won in five sets against Juan Martin del Potro (3-6, 7-6, 2-6, 6-1, 6-4), Federer would beat Soderling in straight sets (6-1, 7-6, 6-4) and eventually conquer the Roland-Garros crown he had been chasing for so long.

On the other hand, Nadal’s knee would not get better, preventing him from defending his title in London. Federer would reclaim his Wimbledon crown as well as his world No 1 spot for 48 extra weeks, and 2009, which started for him in the worse possible way, would eventually turn out to be a year to remember.

Federer would never beat Nadal again on clay, their record on red dirt now being 14-2, while in their overall head-to-head, the Spaniard still prevails 24-16.

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