Djokovic, Bellucci steal show in Madrid

Novak Djokovic took his 2011 unbeaten streak to 31 matches in the semifinals of the ATP Madrid Masters Series, but the Serb had to knock back an impressive challenge from the new star of the week, Thomaz Bellucci, a Brazilian left-hander who seems poised for a major breakthrough.

Bellucci was not so far away from it right here because he had outplayed the world No. 2 for the first hour and established a thoroughly deserved 6-4, 3-1 lead. For a moment it seemed that Bellucci might be the one to go through to a Sunday final against Rafael Nadal, who earlier had survived the loss of the first set to beat Roger Federer 5-7, 6-1, 6-3 — the eleventh time the Spaniard has beaten Federer on clay.

So the day at the Caja Magica was filled with unexpected drama because Federer had staged a thrilling fight back from 2-4 down in the first set against Nadal, reproducing the kind of clay-court tennis that had seen him beat Rafa two years ago in the first final ever staged at this futuristic venue. Sweeping cross forehands kept puncturing the most water-tight defense in tennis, and it was not until a close call went against Federer on the third break point of the second set that the momentum changed.

Federer seemed adamant that a shot from Nadal had missed his left-hand side line. The linesman called the shot good and, after checking the mark, Mohamed Lahyani, the highly experienced Swedish official, stood up to Federer’s complaints by looking him straight in the eye and saying, “No, Roger, the linesman said it was good, and I saw it good.”

Although Sky TV’s replay cameras showed that the officials were correct, the doubt remained in Federer’s mind because the Hawk-Eye sensor technology is not used at clay court events, where the mark of the ball is usually visible. So he had no knowledge of what viewers were seeing at home.

It was unusual to see Federer complain quite as vociferously as he did, but let’s keep it in perspective. By John McEnroe standards, it was a whimper.

Nevertheless, the Swiss did seem affected by it, and although he reached break point on the Nadal serve in the following game, Federer never got back into the free-swinging rhythm that had enabled him to dominate the latter stages of the first set.

Federer did, however, continue to produce some terrific winners and an occasional drop shot of great delicacy. But Nadal had the crowd behind him on what was a very sad and emotional day for the whole sporting world, particularly Spain, in the wake of legendary Spanish golfer Seve Ballesteros’ death.

After completing his victory, Nadal admitted that it was, perhaps, not one of their best matches.

“I’m really happy for the victory, but this was a terrible day for Spain,” he said, referring to Ballesteros’ death.

To have Nadal and Federer play at a big tournament is always a treat, but, in truth, the second semifinal was more intriguing. It was not just the fascination of wondering how long Djokovic could keep up his amazing unbeaten streak, but also the arrival at this level of the game of a new and genuine talent.

Bellucci had caught a few eyes a couple of years ago, but despite getting as high as 21 on the ATP computer in July last year, he had not made the strides some people expected of him.

So it is certainly no coincidence that the 6-foot-2 Brazilian has seemingly developed into a serious contender for titles in the past few months because, in December last year, Larri Passos became his coach. Passos earned a reputation as one of the most respected coaches in the world while he guided Gustavo Kuerten to three French Open crowns, and it remains to be seen how far he can take Bellucci.

What is clear is that Passos has himself a player with huge weapons. Apart from a highly effective first serve, Bellucci wallops his southpaw forehand with such spin and ferocity that he gets the ball to move in the air as disconcertingly as Nadal does.

It was this weapon that flummoxed Djokovic during the first set. And when Bellucci fought his way out of 0-40 in his first service game of the second set with a lovely drop shot and an unreturnable first serve, and then promptly broke the Serb’s serve, all things seemed possible.

“For the first set and a half, he was the better player,” Djokovic admitted afterward. “I was a little slow, and I am very happy that I managed to turn it around.”

Winning breeds a winning mentality, and that pulled Djokovic through. Refusing to give up on enervating rallies, many of which exceeded 20 strokes, Djokovic offered further evidence of why he has become so impossible to beat. By pounding away at Bellucci’s less secure backhand, the Brazilian’s resistance slowly started to fold.

It was clear by the start of the third set that Bellucci was suffering physically, and he needed to get a thigh taped at 1-3 down. He continued to fight, whacking a couple of those forehands that had been so profitable early on, but then he succumbed to the inevitable.

The final promises much. Nadal lost to Djokovic in back-to-back Masters Series finals at Indian Wells and Miami earlier in the year, but that was on hard courts and this is clay. For that reason alone, Nadal should start as the favorite.

But Djokovic is going to fight tooth and nail to preserve that unbeaten record, and who can count against him now?