There had already been a few unforeseen results at this year's Madrid Masters tournament before Novak Djokovic took to the main show court for his opening match on Tuesday night. What unfolded over the next three hours and five minutes of attrition may well prove to be the match of a tournament that is still at the third-round stage.
Facing the world number one was Bulgaria's Grigor Dimitrov, the 21-year-old dubbed "baby Federer" for his athleticism and shot-making ability. By the end of the first set — won controversially by the challenger after a line call at 5-4 in Djokovic's favor was overturned — Dimitrov's shirt was already brown from the dust collected on a few seemingly impossible retrieves. Djokovic took the second despite the hostility of the audience, which had turned on the normally well-received Serb in the course of the match.
Djokovic pulled up in agony at 2-4 down in the second set, precipitating a lengthy medical time out that inexplicably served to further incense his detractors. Dimitrov's name was cheered to the rafters between each point and the world number 28 almost pulled off a shock win in straight sets, only to be denied by the tenacity of Djokovic and a rare serve-volley ploy by the Serb on match point.
But the world number one was playing a force of nature who is set to join the top table very soon, the crowd, and a troublesome ankle that meant he hadn't touched a racket since Monte Carlo and eventually succumbed 7-6, 6-7, 6-3 after Dimitrov had broken early in the third. "I don't know why they turned against me," Djokovic said of his reception. "It is what it is. But I'm a professional and it's not the first time I'm experiencing that [...] I'll be back next year. I like to play in this tournament."
I don’t know why the crowd turned against me," said world number one Djokovic in defeat
One player at the Caja Mágica complex in the south of the capital who need fear no ill-will is local hero Rafael Nadal. The world number five made his customary 3pm start on Wednesday and although given a decent work-out by Frenchman Benoît Paire eased into round three 6-3, 6-4. The desire to see the trophy received by a pair of Spanish hands is acute after a two-year hiatus — another reason perhaps for the crowd siding so vociferously with Dimitrov. Nadal will have to cut a swath through his Davis Cup teammates to reach a projected semifinal with Roger Federer as he is in the same quarter of the draw as David Ferrer and Nicolás Almagro.
Ferrer was due on court in Wednesday's evening session to play Denis Istomin while Nadal will face either Almagro, the number 11 seed and a real handful on clay, or the experienced Mikhail Youzhny in the next round.
Although Nadal generates the most interest at Spain's premier tournament, an even-more-local boy is still swinging this year. Fernando Verdasco came through an epic tussle with Milos Raonic on Tuesday night, winning 6-4, 2-6, 7-6. The world number 46 from Madrid will play Jo Wilfried Tsonga for a place in the quarterfinals at a tournament he clearly enjoys; Verdasco's ranking has plummeted following six first-round exits so far this season.
Last year at the same stage he claimed a first win over Nadal in 15 attempts, albeit on the accursed blue surface that befurrowed the brow of the king of clay to the extent that he threatened not to show up this year.
Pablo Andújar and Daniel Gimeno-Traver are also having a ball in Madrid. The former dispatched big-serving world 21 John Isner on Tuesday 6-4, 6-4 while Gimeno-Traver pulled off an upset by beating world number 9 Richard Gasquet. The two Spaniards will face off in the third round, with a probable match against Federer the winner's reward.
In the women's draw Carla Suárez was unable to build on her win over world number 9 Samantha Stosur and fell meekly to Kaia Kanepi 6-3, 6-1. Scant consolation probably, but she did reach the third round of the doubles with partner Silvia Soler-Espinosa.