The stadium court at the Madrid Masters 1000 is called the Caja Magica, which is Spanish for "magic box." But on Saturday, Rafael Nadal turned it into his personal time machine.
Nadal was transported back to the halcyon days when he was the undisputed King of Clay and master of all he surveyed. He clobbered Novak Djokovic 6-2, 6-4 to reach the final of the Madrid Masters. It's the most lopsided win Nadal has had in this 50-match rivalry with Djokovic since he tagged his Serbian nemesis 6-3, 6-1 in the 2012 Monte Carlo final.
Of greater interest, with the French Open (where Djokovic is the defending champion) right around the corner: This was Nadal's first win over Djokovic since the Roland Garros final of 2014.
Nadal woke up Saturday having lost seven in a row to Djokovic over the course of almost three years. Sure, Nadal was toting a 13-match clay-court winning streak into this semi. But he hadn't even won a set in those past seven matches.
Ever the sensible realist, Nadal told the press before the semi: "I have to play really well or I'm not going to have many chances. I think I've done my homework. Tomorrow is a day to try to give my best. Hopefully I'll be ready for that."
Nadal was so well-prepared, it looked at times as if he would fly out of his shoes. He broke Djokovic at love in the very first game, and it was off to the races. Nadal fired his forehand with as much snap and zing as ever. His movement was superb. He can backpedal faster than some guys sprint forward. He was able to dictate, even when Djokovic pried open the court and located Nadal's backhand.
Nadal's expressive face told the story throughout the match, revealing variations on determination and confidence. A nice change from that furrowed brow and flickering doubt that so often danced in his eyes during his recent slump.
Nadal faltered just once, and you could almost put that down to disbelief that he could beat Djokovic so handily. Serving for the match in the final game, Nadal made an atrocious error to waste his second match point. He made another one to give Djokovic a break point -- just his second of the entire day.
But Nadal calmed down and reeled off three straight points to end the match in 1 hour, 38 minutes. His 20 winners were a testament to his aggressive play throughout.
This match may well be a game-changer. As far as Djokovic and his continuing decline goes, this loss can't necessarily be attributed to his recent decision to fire his entire support team. But if the housecleaning truly freed him up, it was only to continue losing with fewer associates to blame - or turn to for help.
As for Nadal, he's injury-free and playing with the confidence and verve he last felt when he finished No. 1 in 2013.
There's nothing magical about the box Djokovic finds himself in, but Nadal is more than happy to have found his time machine.