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‘Emotional’ Nadal knocked out of Madrid Open by Lehecka

Madrid – Jiri Lehecka broke home hearts on Tuesday as he put an end to Rafael Nadal’s run at the Madrid Open, on the Spaniard’s final appearance at the Masters 1000 tournament.

The 30th-seeded Lehecka defeated Nadal 7-5, 6-4 to advance to a last-eight meeting with Daniil Medvedev, and deny the five-time champion the chance to become the first man in history to reach 100 Masters 1000 quarter-finals.

This was Nadal’s first defeat on clay to a player ranked outside the top 20 since 2016 and it marked the end of his storied career in Madrid, where he owns the most wins (59) and titles (five) in tournament history.

“I’m happy. It was a very special week for me, very positive and very emotional. I had the opportunity to play one more time here on this court,” said Nadal on court.

Nadal hasn’t decided exactly when he’d be hanging up his racquet this season but the 22-time Grand Slam winner’s retirement is fast approaching. Numerous physical issues have hampered him over the past two years and he will make the call on whether he will compete at Roland Garros later this month.

Lehecka and Nadal were neck and neck for the first 10 games of the contest on Tuesday before the 22-year-old Czech made his move breaking at love then holding at love to scoop the opening set in just under an hour.

Nadal dropped serve at the start of the second and never recovered as the tournament bid farewell to its greatest champion.

A special ceremony was held on Manolo Santana Stadium after the match, with banners suspended above the stands with the words “Gracias Rafa” and signifying the years in which he has won the Madrid tournament.

“This was a joke, because I’ll be back next year,” joked Nadal, his family watching on from the stands. “All I can say is thank you to everyone that has helped me in my career. It hasn’t finished yet.

“It has been a gift what you’ve given me here. The emotion that I get from this experience in Madrid, from the Spanish public… I was lucky as a kid to do the job that I love. I feel super fortunate to have lived the life that I’ve lived. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Lehecka, through to the second Masters 1000 quarter-final of his career, said it felt “bittersweet” to beat Nadal in his last ever match in Madrid.

“It’s amazing for me, to share the court with such a legendary player is a dream come true,” said Lehecka.

“I always believed and always wished to have this happen.

“All the best to Rafa, it’s kind of bittersweet to have such a nice win in front of all these people, everyone cheering for him. The energy here was amazing and I’m happy to be through.”

Earlier in the day, second seed Carlos Alcaraz extended his Madrid Open winning streak to a record-equalling 14 with a hard-fought victory over familiar foe Jan-Lennard Struff to move into the quarter-finals.

In a rematch of last year’s final at the Caja Magica, Alcaraz snapped Struff’s six-match winning streak with a 6-3, 6-7 (5/7), 7-6 (7/4) result to squeeze through to a last-eight clash with seventh seed Andrey Rublev.

Top-seeded Jannik Sinner has been dealing with a hip problem but managed to overcome Karen Khachanov 5-7, 6-3, 6-3 to reach his fourth Masters 1000 quarter-final in as many events this season.

Alcaraz, who missed Monte Carlo and Barcelona with a forearm injury, saved eight out of 10 break points and saw four match points come and go before he completed the two-hour 52-minute win.

Alcaraz, who is now 24-0 on Spanish clay since the start of the 2022 season, is bidding to become the first player to win three consecutive Madrid titles.

After blowing a 2-0 lead in the second set, Alcaraz opened up a 3-1 advantage in the tiebreak, only to lose the next five points and go on to surrender the set to Struff, who came into the tournament on the back of a maiden ATP title run in Munich.

A break of serve in the fourth game of the decider gave Alcaraz the score cushion he needed but the two-time Grand Slam champion was broken while serving for the victory from 40-0 up at 5-3.

Struff saved four match points and the contest fittingly went to a deciding tiebreak. Alcaraz let a 3-0 lead slip, but he got his hands on more match points by landing an inch-perfect lob and he closed on his fifth opportunity of the match.

“This match reminds me of last year’s. It was a great fight,” said Alcaraz after matching Rafael Nadal’s record winning streak in Madrid.

“It was difficult for me to deal with my emotions, to handle difficult moments. Serving for the match, it was really difficult for me to get broken after being 40-0 up, but I’m really happy that at the end it didn’t affect me and my mentality and I kept fighting.”

Sinner won 80 percent of points behind his first serve against Khachanov, hitting 35 winners to 29 unforced errors in the two-hour nine-minute battle. 

The reigning Australian Open champion will face Felix Auger-Aliassime, who beat Casper Ruud 6-4, 7-5, for a place in the semi-finals.

“For sure I’m not physically at 100 percent today. Tomorrow I have one day off, which can help me to get through,” said the Italian.

Meanwhile, third seed Medvedev completed his full set of Masters 1000 quarter-finals reached by defeating Alexander Bublik 7-6(7/3), 6-4.

After grabbing the opening set tiebreak, Medvedev cruised to a 5-1 lead before Bublik halted his momentum and narrowed his deficit to just one game.

But Medvedev had a second chance to serve for the victory and this time he comfortably converted his first match point to make it to the last-eight stage or better at each of the nine Masters 1000 events.

– Swiatek fights back –

On the women’s side, Iga Swiatek was made to sweat in her 4-6, 6-0, 6-2 victory over Brazilian lefty Beatriz Haddad Maia, as she dropped her first set of the tournament and needed two and a half hours to reach a second consecutive Madrid semi-final.

Swiatek squandered a 4-1 lead to lose the first set but the world number one struck back with a vengeance, cutting down on her errors to sweep the next eight games.

Haddad Maia stopped the rot to break Swiatek in the third game of the decider, but the Brazilian’s comeback attempt was short-lived. 

Swiatek, 22, took four of the last five games to set up a last-four showdown with American 18th seed Madison Keys.

“I needed to stick to the tactics, because in the first set I started making too many mistakes. I started playing too fast,” said Swiatek.

“I just needed to really get back to basics and what I wanted to play today. It took me a while, longer than usual, but I’m glad that it happened after the set anyway.”

Swiatek has now reached the semi-finals at a WTA 1000 event for a 15th time –- the most by a player under the age of 23.

Keys, 29, came back from 0-6, 0-2 down to upset 2022 champion Ons Jabeur 0-6, 7-5, 6-1. She snapped the Tunisian’s nine-match winning streak in Madrid to reach her first semi-final at the Caja Magica, on her 10th appearance.

Keys is just the third American woman to make the last-four stage at the two WTA 1000 events on clay – Rome and Madrid – alongside Serena and Venus Williams.

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