MADRID • World No. 1 Rafael Nadal expects longtime rival Novak Djokovic to return to form and identified the Serb as one of his toughest opponents on clay.
Nadal has been dominant on the slower surface, breaking John McEnroe's 34-year record on Thursday by winning his 50th consecutive set on clay at the Madrid Open.
His 6-3, 6-4 victory over Argentina's Diego Schwartzman means he establishes a new Open era best for consecutive sets won on a single surface, passing McEnroe's 49 on carpet in 1984.
He also set up a quarter-final meeting with Austrian Dominic Thiem yesterday. The result was not available by press time.
"When my career is over, these are things that are going to be there forever," he said of the milestone.
"They are big records. It's difficult to be able to win 50 sets in a row. But I've done it. It's over. Let's not talk about that any more and let's focus on what we have ahead."
The 31-year-old Spaniard is in pursuit of a sixth Madrid Open title after beginning the clay-court season by winning an 11th Monte Carlo Masters and lifting the Barcelona Open trophy for the 11th time.
His run is perhaps a reflection of a lack of rivals, with Roger Federer, Djokovic and Andy Murray, for different reasons, all posing little threat on clay over the past year.
But Djokovic has one of the better records on the red dust against Nadal. He has beaten the 16-time Grand Slam champion six times in 21 meetings, including their 2015 French Open quarter-final. And Nadal acknowledged the threat Djokovic poses on clay.
"There are times where there is an opponent that perhaps is tougher, maybe some moments it was Djokovic," Nadal revealed.
Djokovic, however, lost to Briton Kyle Edmund 6-3, 2-6, 6-3 in the last 32 this week and is still feeling the effects of elbow surgery.
The world No. 12 heads to Paris later this month without a quarter-final appearance at a Grand Slam tournament since 2016. But Nadal expects to see the 12-time Major champion return to the top.
"I believe a lot in dynamics, in momentum," Nadal said. "Small things happen that normally when you're in a good momentum, those things don't happen. When you don't have that momentum, you're in a negative way, these things happen.
"I think Novak, step by step, is going to be able to recover and be at the level he deserves. I don't have any doubt he's going to be back up at the highest level."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
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