Novak Djokovic let go with a passionate yell and fist pump when he broke Daniel Gimeno-Traver to go up 4-2 in the third set of his Madrid Masters opener. With all that had transpired for the world No. 1 in the past couple of weeks—the death of his beloved grandfather, the resounding loss to Rafael Nadal in Monte Carlo, the withdrawal from his home tournament in Belgrade—Djokovic looked to finally have found his footing.
Stoic for much of the match, Djokovic's piercing verbal joust hinted that he was back to his dominant ways. The Serb proceeded to finish off his feisty Spanish challenger, 6-2, 2-6, 6-3, in an arduous, one-hour-and-46-minute battle on slippery blue clay.
Gimeno-Traver, who is listed at 6'1" but looks to be considerably smaller, came into this match as the biggest of underdogs. Ranked No. 137, the 26-year-old had yet to win an ATP match this year (0-5) and even had a losing record in the Challenger circuit (3-4). He had qualified and beat fellow qualifier Victor Hanescu in the first round, and even though he had a 1-1 record against Djokovic (having beaten him on clay in their first encounter way back in 2006), his chances before the match appeared slim and none.
But right from the start of this night match, Djokovic looked unsure of his footing and shot-making. He slipped in the second game and started hitting his racket against the soles of his shoes repeatedly. The slippery footing seemed to be an equalizer, as while this was Djokovic's first match on the blue clay, Gimeno-Traver had already played three matches on the new surface. Qualifiers have done very well in Madrid, with four winning first-round matches.
Djokovic opened up the third game of the match, at 1-all, with a double-fault and then went down 15-40 before righting himself and winning the game. He broke Gimeno-Traver the very next game, held serve at love to go up 4-1, and finished the first set at 6-2. But at 1-all in the second set, Djokovic opened the third game as he did in the first set—with a double fault—and this time Gimeno-Traver broke him to go up 2-1. The qualifier then breezed through his next service game at love and broke Djokovic once more to go up 4-1.
The diminutive Gimeno-Traver hits a big serve (he hit seven aces in the match while Djokovic served none) and he closed out the second set relatively easily, 6-2. Surprisingly, Djokovic was being out-hit by the Spaniard, who uses a heavy, topspin forehand, and then pulled out a nifty, down-the-line backhand that Djokovic often didn't even get a racquet on.
At 0-1 in the third set, with Gimeno-Traver serving at 30-15, he hit a cross-court backhand for a winner that Djokovic challenged, only to be told by chair umpire Mohammed Layani that his challenge came too late because he played the ball. The ball was later shown to be out on the television replay, and Layani was clearly wrong—the shot had been the last of the point, and Djokovic didn't come close to playing the ball; it wasn't too late with his challenge. Gimeno-Traver won the game, and if ever there was a chance for him to turn the screws even tighter on the world No. 1, it seemed now.
But Djokovic stayed calm and started playing his best tennis of the match, serving bigger, hitting his forehand deeper into the corners, and finishing points with gusto. He closed out the match winning five of the next six games. Next up for Nole is the winner of the Stanislas Wawrinka-Jurgen Melzer match.
Dan Markowitz is writing the book, "Chasing The GOAT: Roger, Rafa, Nole & The Golden Slam Year of 2012."