Barcelona Open: Champion Kei Nishikori pursues Rafael Nadal to Roland Garros

Kei Nishikori continues his hot run of form at the Barcelona Open by defending his title in Spain

Kei Nishikori continued his hot run of form at the Barcelona Open to defend his title with victory over Pablo Andujar, 6-4, 6-4.

Making his first clay-court appearance of the season, Nishikori advanced to 26-5 for the year and 21-1 when competing as the top seed.

It was the top seed’s second title defence of the year—he won his third consecutive Memphis title in February—and his fourth-round loss in Indian Wells remains the only tournament where he has fallen short of the quarter-finals. After a final run in Acapulco, he also won two singles rubbers against Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil in the first round of the Davis Cup in Canada.

At the start of the tournament, Nishikori had in fact fallen to No5 in the rankings behind eight-time Barcelona champion Rafael Nadal, and he remains there for the time being, but the gap is now just 110 points as the tour heads towards the back-to-back clay Masters in Madrid and Rome in May. And the results there could proved to be very significant ahead of the French Open.

Nishikori led Nadal in the final of Madrid last year before being forced to retire with a back injury that took him out of Rome. Nadal, with the Madrid title under his belt, went on to reach the final in Rome, too, so this year has 1,600 points to defend before Paris compared with Nishikori’s 600, and that means the Japanese man could grab a valuable top-four slot in the French Open seedings.

His aggressive and fast-paced game, deploying destructive flat angles and down-the-line winners with equal ease, is a constantly-evolving and attractive style of tennis, and although he played a Spaniard in the final, the home crowd was clearly appreciative of the qualities that Nishikori brings to bear.

And the Japanese man, for his part, enjoyed the atmosphere hugely. He also revealed something of the tactical developments he has been making for the clay: “I’ve become more aggressive, my service is better and so is my return.

“I guess my style is becoming more Spanish. I still feel more comfortable on hard court than on clay but these last four matches have been great and I think they’ve helped me improve.

“I’m really happy I’m able to defend the title. I think the second set was extremely tough and I don’t really know how I won it to be honest. Pablo was very aggressive, he kept moving the ball and made me run up and down all the time. I also tried to be aggressive and I think that’s why I won the important points, but I’d say he played better than me.

“I think this victory on clay and in such a difficult tournament gives me a lot of confidence to face the upcoming competitions. It’s just an amazing feeling to win a title. I have to come back to Barcelona!”

It was certainly appropriate to mention the achievement of the unseeded Andujar, who began the tournament ranked No66 and ended it at 42. Along the way, he beat four seeds, including No5 Feliciano Lopez, No13 Fabio Fognini—who beat Nadal—and, for the first time, No3 David Ferrer in the semis.

Andujar played some very fine, aggressive and forward-moving tennis throughout the week to reach only the seventh final of his career, but despite leading by a break in the second set against Nishikori, he could not seal his fourth title—though he still beamed in delight from hand-shake to trophy presentation.

The Spaniard moves on to Munich this week where, still unseeded, he has tricky draw that begins with Joao Souza, then No2 seed Gael Monfils, and Fognini a possible rematch in the quarters. But he has only 20 points to defend ahead of the French Open—he fell in the first round at both Madrid and Rome last year—so he may have his own seeding ambitions for the climax of the clay season. Just 130 points separates him from No32 in the rankings.

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