While he is the King of Clay, Rafael Nadal has had more than his fair share of big moments on hard courts too.
Many of those have come in Canada, where the Spaniard is a five-time champion. He is the second-winningest man in the history of the National Bank Open and it is his most-successful event on a hard court.
On more than one occasion, matches he has played in Canada have dictated the course of the ATP Tour.
When Rafael Nadal rolled up for his second appearance in Canada in August 2005 (he had lost in the first round of Toronto in the previous year) he was already a star on the ATP Tour, ranked second in the world and a nine-time titlist, including two Masters 1000s and his first major title at Roland-Garros earlier that year.
However, he had yet to prove himself on hard courts. All nine of his titles were on clay and he had lost both his previous hard-court finals.
In Roger Federer’s absence, he was the top seed at a Masters 1000 event for the first time in Montreal but ran into trouble early in the tournament up against his fellow Majorcan and future coach Carlos Moya.
Nadal managed to grind past his childhood hero in three sets, which helped him find his top gear quickly. The raging bull did not drop a set in his next four matches, including a 6-3, 6-1 victory in a rematch of the French Open final with Mariano Puerta, to reach his third hard court final and second at a Masters 1000 event.
The title match was a battle of generations, pitting the 19-year-old Nadal against the 35-year-old Andre Agassi.
Despite his age, the eight-time major winner was still a force on the tour, ranked seventh in the world and one of the greatest hard-court players of all time (he would make the US Open final just a month later).
The pair provided such stark contrasts in both their look and game. Agassi, years removed from his flamboyant outfits and wild hairstyles, was kitted out in simple solid colours. He hit the ball much flatter with more traditional groundstrokes.
On the other side of the net was Nadal, still in his tank top and pirate-pants phase with his long hair flowing out from under his bandana. His shots were unlike anything the tour had really seen, looping metres over the net before slamming down with massive amount of top spin.
Even if their styles were different, Nadal was in many ways the obvious successor to Agassi as the best pure baseliner in the game.
Nadal scored a break early in the opening set and raced out to a 4-1 lead, enough cushion to secure it. But Agassi hung tough in the second and made his move late, breaking at 5-4 to send the match to a deciding set.
Like the first set, the Spaniard broke early and this time kept the foot on the gas, adding a second break as he wore his veteran opponent down to claim his first career title on a hard court.
In his 2009 autobiography Open, Agassi said of Nadal in that match, “I can’t fathom him. I’ve never seen anyone move like that on a tennis court.”
12 years after winning his first title on a hard court, Nadal was in the midst of yet another renaissance after an injury-plagued 2016 season.
He arrived in Montreal with a chance to regain the No. 1 ranking for the first time since June 2014 should he reach the semifinals and looked well on his way when he found himself up against 18-year-old Canadian Denis Shapovalov in the third round.
Shapovalov had only been on tour for a year and was competing in just his second Masters 1000 event, having made his debut in Toronto a year earlier. It was not his first time on court in Canada with Nadal. Shapovalov had walked out on court with the Majorcan before a match at the 2008 National Bank Open in Toronto when Shapovalov was just nine.
Read also: Milos Raonic: Canada’s Tennis Trailblazer
The clash started out as most expected, with Nadal taking the opening set.
But the Canadian did not seem overawed by the occasion or his opponent. He broke at the first opportunity in the second set and while Nadal did break back, Shapovalov showed no nerves and broke again to send the match to a deciding set.
Throughout the match, Shapovalov worked the home crowd to get them loud and used the support as motivation. Still, he looked finished when he fell behind early in the tiebreak. Nadal rarely loses matches from a winning position, but the Canadian was not going away quietly. Continuing to take aggressive swings, Shapovalov managed to wrestle the breaker away, truly announcing his arrival as a star on the ATP Tour with a forehand winner down the line to complete the upset.
2018 and 2019
2017 did not mark a changing of the guard the way Nadal defeating Agassi in 2005 had.
The Spaniard reached back-to-back finals in his next two appearances in Canada. Both times he faced rising stars who went on to win Masters 1000 titles and reach multiple Grand Slam finals.
A year later in Montreal, he beat up-and-coming Daniil Medvedev, who was in the midst of his breakthrough summer that saw him reach four hard-court finals in a row including Canada, Cincinnati (which he won) and the US Open (also lost to Nadal).
For both men, it was their first Masters 1000 final and, like Nadal had in 2005 against Agassi, found themselves up against an all-time great player. But unlike the Spaniard, they could not bet the legend.
The titles in 2018 and 2019 were especially significant for Nadal, not just because he kept the next generation at bay, but those two wins are the only successful title defence of a hard-court event for the Spaniard in his legendary career.
They are also his last two appearances his Canada. Shapovalov is the most recent man to beat Nadal in the Great White North, as the Spaniard is on a 10-match winning streak at the National Bank Open.
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