October 23, 2005: The day Nadal came back from two sets down to triumph in Madrid

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On this day in tennis history, a teenager won in Madrid - proving he was not just a clay-court wonder. Find out how it happened.

What happened

On this day, October 23, 2005, Rafael Nadal came back from two sets down to prevail against Ivan Ljubicic (3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6), and clinch his first and only indoor Masters 1000 title in Madrid. It was the first time in his career that the then-19-year-old Spaniard fought back from two sets down, giving another proof of his extreme mental toughness. It was also a warning to those who thought that he could only triumph on clay courts.

The players

In October 2005, Rafael Nadal was only nineteen years old, but reaching the final of the Montreal Masters 1000 was not a surprise – he was already world No 2. A few months before, ranked No 31 in the world, he had made it to the Miami Open final, where he forced world No 1 Roger Federer to a five-set marathon – eventually losing 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-3, 6-1. Later in April, he claimed his first Masters 1000 tournament, in Monte-Carlo, defeating former Roland-Garros runner-up Guillermo Coria (6-3, 6-1, 0-6, 7-6). The following week, he remained undefeated in Barcelona, beating Juan Carlos Ferrero in the final round (6-1, 7-6, 6-3) and entered the top 10 for the first time in his career.

In Rome, bursting with confidence, he continued his winning streak, edging Coria in the longest ATP final ever played (6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6). These unbelievable results made him the favourite for his first appearance at Roland-Garros. This new pressure did not disturb Nadal, who won the tournament at his first attempt, beating Roger Federer (6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3) in the semi-final and Mariano Puerta in the final (6-7, 6-3, 6-1, 7-5).  Now No 3 in the world, , he did not achieve any remarkable results on grass, and after Wimbledon, he stayed in Europe to attend and win two clay court tournaments, in Bastad and Stuttgart.

In August, Nadal clinched his first title on hard courts. In the final of the Montreal Masters 1000, he defeated Andre Agassi, 35 years old and still world No 7, in a clash of generations (6-3, 4-6, 6-2). This was a milestone for Nadal, proving to the world of tennis that he could triumph in important events on another surface than clay. After a disappointing loss against James Blake in the US Open third round (6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 6-1), he triumphed on hard courts for the second time in Beijing (defeating Coria, 5-7, 6-1, 6-2).

Ivan Ljubicic, from Croatia, was born in 1979. Relying mainly on a deadly serve, he broke into the top 100 in 1999, and he claimed his first title in 2001, in Lyon, after he beat Younes El Aynaoui in the final (6-3, 6-2). He remained a top 50 player until 2004, when he climbed in the top 25 after he had twice reached the semi-finals of a Masters 1000 event, but 2005 was his breakthrough year. Ljubicic reached the finals in four of his first six tournaments, losing to Federer in Doha (6-3, 6-1), Rotterdam (5-7, 7-5, 7-6) and Dubai (6-1, 6-7, 6-3) with the other to Joachim Johansson in Marseille (7-5, 6-4). When the Madrid Masters 1000 started in October, the Croatian was world No 12, after he had claimed two consecutive titles in Metz (defeating Gaël Monfils, 7-6, 6-0) and Vienna (where he beat Juan Carlos Ferrero, 6-2, 6-4, 7-6). 

The place

The Madrid Masters 1000 had been established in 2002, taking the spot previously held by the Stuttgart Open. It was played on indoor hard courts at the Madrid Arena, a venue which was unveiled in 2002 and could host 12,000 spectators.The former champions of the Madrid Masters 1000 were Andre Agassi (2002), Juan Carlos Ferrero (2003) and Marat Safin (2004).

The facts

The final of the 2005 Madrid Masters 1000 was a clash between two players who just had their breakthrough year. Rafael Nadal had started the year as the 51st player in the world, and he was now world No 2, having already claimed no less than nine titles, including Roland-Garros. His opponent, Ivan Ljubicic, world No 12, was aiming for the top 10. He had just clinched two consecutive titles in Metz and Vienna, and when he was now on a 16-win streak. 

The Croatian had a game style that was perfect for indoor hard courts. In fact, in the past weeks, he had even managed to hold his serve for 81 consecutive games. At the start of the final against Nadal, he relied on that powerful weapon to take the best start. He didn’t give the Spaniard enough time to find his pace, and soon Ljubicic took a two-set lead, 6-3, 6-2.

However, Rafa had no intention of giving up. Pushed by his home crowd, he clawed his way back, displaying his famous fighting spirit. His passing shots became more accurate, his topspin forehand became heavier and forced the Croatian to take a step back. Taking the next sets (6-3, 6-4), Nadal pushed his opponent into a fifth set.

In the fifth set, Ljubicic was the first to break his opponent to lead 2-0, but he was broken back immediately. Both players then held their serves until the deciding tie-break, where Nadal took an early lead and triumphed 7-3. Despite the fast conditions, despite the 32 aces fired by Ljubicic, despite being two sets down, 19-year-old Rafael Nadal was the new champion in Madrid. It was his 10th title of the year.

“I’d rank this as my most important victory of the year after Roland Garros,” said Nadal. “He played unbelievable tennis in the first sets. How many aces did he serve? 32? I couldn’t even see the ball.”

As usual, the Croatian kept his sportsmanship, declaring: “It was a beautiful feeling to play here and I’m really happy for Rafa because he’s young and will have a lot of victories ahead of him still to come.”

What next 

Improving his game every year to triumph on every surface, Rafael Nadal would claim, on top of his twelve Roland-Garros crowns, two Grand Slam titles on grass at Wimbledon, and five on hard court, one at the 2009 Australian Open, and four at the US Open (2010, 2013, 2017, 2019). However, he would always remain vulnerable on indoor courts, and the 2005 Madrid Open would be his only prestigious success in these conditions.

Later in 2005, Ivan Ljubicic would lead Croatia to win the Davis Cup for the first time, defeating Slovakia in the final (3-2). He would climb as high as world No 3, in 2006. That year, he would reach the quarterfinals at the Australian Open and the semi-final at Roland-Garros, which would remain his best Grand Slam performance. The Croatian would claim his biggest title at Indian Wells in 2010, defeating Andy Roddick in the final (7-6, 7-6). After his retirement in 2012, Ljubicic would become a coach, working with Milos Raonic (2013-2015) and then with Roger Federer.

 

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