Rafael Nadal bids emotional farewell to Madrid Open after loss to Jiri Lehecka

Rafael Nadal bids emotional farewell to Madrid Open after loss to Jiri Lehecka

Rafael Nadal’s rousing, dramatic last stand on home soil came to an end just after midnight in the early hours of Wednesday morning as he was outhit and outplayed by Jiri Lehecka, a talented young Czech, who seized one of the biggest moments of his career so far by ­toppling the Spaniard 7-5, 6-4 to reach the quarter-finals of the Madrid Open.

The defeat will likely mark Nadal’s final time competing at the tournament he has won a record five times, with the 37-year-old expecting 2024 to be the final year of his career.

After the match, an emotional Nadal remained on court as he received a special presentation, with five banners picturing Nadal’s record five wins falling down from the closed roof as Madrid said goodbye to its greatest champion.

“It is very special for me,” said Nadal. “I have had the opportunity to play again on this court that has given me so much. When I left for Barcelona I did not know if I would be able to compete again. It has been an unforgettable week. Honestly the only thing I can do is give thanks.

“The first time I arrived competitively in Madrid, in 2005, it was one of the most exciting victories I have had. To this day it has only been unconditional support and affection from everyone. I can only say thank you.”

While a round of 16 defeat at any clay court event was once a tragedy for Nadal, after the most desperate 18 months of his career, this performance represents a significant step forward. He leaves Madrid with four matches under his belt, his body seemingly still holding firm and having made clear progress in his comeback from injury.

Gracias Rafa: a banner marking Nadal’s five career titles in Madrid is unveiled after the match.View image in fullscreen

He had entered the match with question marks surrounding his durability after his tense three-set win over Pedro Cachín a day earlier. Unlike Nadal’s previous opponents, Lehecka is a destructive ball-striker with the weapons to put opponents under relentless pressure.

Although Nadal began the match holding confidently and striking the ball with authority, it was the 22-year-old who controlled many of the exchanges, even if early on he paired his dominance with too many mistakes.

As the 22-time grand slam ­champion’s depth waned during the first set, Lehecka slowly found his range. He took the decisive break with some incredible shot-making, pummelling the ball from on top of the baseline and showing delicate touches around the net on decisive points.

Despite Estadio Manolo Santana’s increasingly loud cheers, ­including the 12,400-strong crowd rising to their feet with chants of “si, se puede’’ (yes, we can) ahead of the final game, Lehecka held his nerve until the very end to see off Nadal with a ­brilliant performance.

It remains to be seen if the 14-time Roland Garros champion will deem himself physically prepared to ­compete in Paris, but he has given himself a solid foundation to build on as the tour heads to the Italian Open in Rome next week.

Iga Swiatek returned to the semi-finals by coming from behind to defeat Beatriz Haddad Maia 4-6, 6-0, 6-2. She will face Madison Keys after the American also recovered from a set down, defeating Ons Jabeur 0-6, 7-5, 6-1.

Madison Keys will play Iga Swiatek in the semis after outlasting Ons Jabeur over three sets.View image in fullscreen

In the rest of the men’s action, Carlos Alcaraz survived a brutal encounter with Jan-Lennard Struff in a dramatic rematch of last year’s final. After squandering three match points on his serve in the final set, Alcaraz recovered to reach the quarter-finals with a 6-3, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (4) win. Jannik Sinner similarly struggled but found a way through, defeating Karen Khachanov 5-7, 6-3, 6-3.