Verdasco in Cincinnati 2011. Federer in London later that year. Djokovic in Miami 2014. These are matches that most Rafael Nadal fans have, for the sake of their health, carefully blocked from their minds. They can add another to the list today: Nadal’s mercifully brief 6-3, 6-2 defeat at the hands of Andy Murray in the Madrid final. Even Rafa said he was going to “delete” this one from his memory banks as soon as possible.

Nadal was profoundly out of rhythm from the first point, which he lost by burying a forehand in the bottom of the net, to the last point, which he lost by doing pretty much the same thing. He committed 26 unforced errors, 10 more than Murray, but the number still feels low. Maybe that's because these weren’t just errors. They were wild, no-chance shanks that, when they weren’t fluttering harmlessly into the net, caromed well past the baseline and outside of the doubles alleys.

The match from Rafa’s perspective was best summed up by the return he made—or failed to come close to making—at 30-30 in the final game. With one last chance to break and put some pressure on his opponent, he took a big cut at a forehand...and nearly launched it into the audience behind Murray. All Nadal could do at that point was laugh. I’d say it was one of those days for Rafa, except that I’ve never seen him have a day like this on clay before.

Of course, one fan’s debacle is another fan's miracle. For Murray and his supporters, this is a match to preserve and rewind in future years. Six days after winning the first clay-court title of his career, in Munich, he has now won a Masters event on the surface, and beaten Nadal on it for the first time in seven tries. Like Nadal’s stats, Murray’s—11 winners, 14 errors, 60 percent first serves in—were surprisingly ordinary. But it’s the low number of errors that tell the tale for him.

Even as Murray’s confidence and aggression grew, his consistency didn't suffer. As the match progressed, he wasn’t afraid to slug his backhand, attack his returns, and change directions and hit up the line with both of his ground strokes, all of which kept Nadal off balance. In the past—think Wimbledon 2011 and Rome last year—Murray has taken control early against Rafa, only to miss a couple of key shots, begin to doubt his strategy, and go back into his defensive shell. This time he never retreated. This time when Murray missed what could have been a key shot—with a chance to break for 3-0 in the second set, he drilled an easy swing volley into the net—Nadal was there to bail him out by putting a backhand in the bottom of the net on the next break point.

"I think I wasn't expecting this a couple of weeks ago," said Murray, who got married last month, "so when things are unexpected, it feels nicer. I didn't feel like I put too much pressure on myself the past couple of weeks."

Magic Man

Magic Man


Nadal said that his wonky backhand sapped his confidence in his game as a whole, and that his slow starts in each set never let him build it back up. A slow start to a big match isn’t unusual for Rafa—he lost the first set 6-1 to Murray in Rome last spring. But doing it again to open the second set was weird and uncharacteristic. Just when he seemed to have worked himself into competent form, worked out the early nerves, and given the crowd a few winners to cheer, he became tentative all over again.

As for his shots themselves, it seemed to me that many of Nadal’s ugliest shanks came when he was trying to transition from a defensive position to an offensive one, when he was trying to go from blocking the ball back to taking a full swing. On a lot of those full swings, he caught the ball late.

Where does this leave Nadal with two weeks to go before the French Open? As it has been all spring, it’s a contest between form and history.

Rafa hasn’t won a title in his last three clay events, and he was unable to carry the confidence he showed in his semifinal win over Tomas Berdych into the final. While he looked much better at times this week, there’s still a sense that you don’t know what you’re going to get from Nadal from one match to the next. The favorite for the French Open, Novak Djokovic, has no reason to be any more concerned now than he was when he beat Nadal in Monte Carlo three weeks ago. As of tomorrow, Rafa will be ranked No. 7; it’s the first time in 10 years that he’ll be out of the Top 5. If he loses early in Rome, it’s possible he could drop out of the Top 8, which means he could play Djokovic as early as the quarters or the round of 16 in Paris. If he plays at Roland Garros the way he played today, though, he won’t even make it that far.

While those numbers were once unthinkable, Nadal’s position is not much different from what it was a year ago. In 2014, he also suffered defeats in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, and he was in danger of suffering a blowout loss to Kei Nishikori in the Madrid final. But instead of completing that win, as Murray did today, Nishikori pulled up with a back injury and retired. After that, Nadal still didn’t turn things around in Rome, where he lost to Djokovic in the final. Yet he won the French Open anyway. Roland Garros, in other words, remains a tournament unto itself for Rafa. Perhaps the best news for Nadal fans is that he walked to the net on Sunday with a wry smile on his face, as if this defeat was so bad, and so out of the ordinary, that it’s not worth dwelling on or worrying about.

"I cannot leave Madrid not happy," Nadal said. "I leave happy and just delete what happened today. I will just stay with the good thing that happened this week, and there are a lot of them, more good than bad. I will try to recover in Rome the feelings. I think I've made a step forward and I'm playing better. My game is better."

Magic Man

Magic Man

Nadal seems to be saying that, this final aside, his game itself has improved, but he still needs to find, or generate, the emotions needed to rise to the occasion in a big match.

As for Murray, he has put himself into the circle of second-tier contenders for the French, just below Djokovic and Nadal. He says he’ll fly to Rome and decide there whether he’ll play the event—it’s been a busy week for him. It’s also been an eye-opening one. On Sunday he played the way he was supposed to play, with the right mix of patience and aggression. He has had success playing that way against Nadal on clay in the past, but this time, for the first time, it paid off with a win.

Last Sunday Murray found out, at the advanced age of nearly 28, that he can win a tournament on clay. This Sunday he found out that he can beat Rafael Nadal on clay. What else can he find out about himself on this surface over the next four weeks?