Barcelona Open: Nadal avenges Almagro defeat, but Ferrer lies ahead

Rafael Nadal beats Nicolas Almagro in straight sets to reach the third round of the Barcelona Open

Hot on the heels of the first clay Masters of the season in Monte-Carlo comes one of the most prestigious 500s in the ATP calendar, the Barcelona Open.

For Monte-Carlo finalist Rafael Nadal, this meant a hasty transfer to take part in the closest thing he has to a home tournament, at Spain’s oldest tennis club, the Real Club de Tenis.

And when he arrived, he also happened to find some very familiar names and some eerily similar threats to the ones he faced a year ago.

For a start, after a difficult end to 2014 and a challenging start to 2015, the eight-time champion Nadal is not the top seed this year: that place goes to defending champion Kei Nishikori, who halted an 11-year Spanish stranglehold on this title last year.

And what may chime in Nadal’s memory banks, aside from Nishikori winning last year, was how close the Japanese man came to denying Nadal in the Madrid final a week later. Nishikori had him on the ropes in the final before retiring injured.

But before a possible rematch with Nishikori in what would be their first encounter since Madrid, Nadal had to face the man who had brought his 41-match winning streak in Barcelona to an end last year, Nicolas Almagro.

Most of the contests between these two Spaniards have, not surprisingly, come on clay, and three of those meetings have been played on Barcelona’s Centre Court. But this year, the first time, Almagro had a win to his name and, what’s more, a win after a long and gutsy fight-back from a set down, 2-6, 7-6(5), 6-4.

Would that prey on Nadal’s mind, even though he had beaten Almagro once this year on Miami? Could Almagro draw on that success to challenge again? It seemed a big ask: Almagro had not played from Roland Garros to the end of last year after foot surgery, so had slipped outside the top 100.

Yet the flashy-hitting Almagro, owner of that rare shot, a Spanish single-handed backhand, was not without some success this season, despite his recent return: the semis in Buenos Aires and the quarters in Casablanca.

And if Almagro rang alarm bells for Nadal, then his possible third-round opponent would do the same: Fabio Fognini halted the defence of Nadal’s title in Rio this February. And what about the quarter-finals? That could produce another Spaniard, one enjoying a career-high ranking of 12 at the age of 33, Feliciano Lopez—who won their last meeting, albeit on the hard courts of Shanghai that are more suited to the Lopez game.

Come the semis, the next highest seed, No3, was ready and waiting in the shape of David Ferrer, who scored his first clay win in a decade over Nadal a year ago in Monte Carlo. And the feisty 33-year-old Spaniard had again pressed him hard last week, losing their quarter-final, 6-4, 5-7, 6-2. Ferrer, four times a losing finalist to Nadal in Barcelona, would have more incentive than most—though perhaps more pressure—to pull a great performance out of the hat.

And all that could happen before Nadal attempted to claim his ninth title against Nishikori.

Almagro was strong from the gates, too, making a quick hold and than taking Nadal to 0-30. They stayed firmly locked for six games but come the seventh, Nadal took Almagro to deuce, then break point, then two more deuces, before making the break and holding for 5-3.

The final game of the set produced some most intense rallies as Almagro faced down four break points and four deuces before double faulting on his fifth set point, 6-3.

Almagro, who can play thrilling, attacking, but often frustratingly inconsistent tennis, showed that he could make winners but also many errors: 12 to 19 for the set. And his error count grew apace in the second while Nadal’s grip became stronger as the sun came out to heat up and dry the heavy court.

Almagro got a quick break in the first game but Nadal broke straight back, broke again, and once more, to lead 5-1. All he had to do was serve out a dominant set, but it would take him over 20 minutes as Almagro found more aggression and more power on his backhand.

Four times Nadal failed to convert match points, 11 times he served at deuce, and seven times Almagro had the chance to break—though it always looked an impossible task to come back from such a deficit even if he had been successful.

It took some of Nadal’s finest play—one stunning drop shot in particular—to hold off his compatriot, who smiled in disbelief at a couple of Nadal’s saves. But hold him off Nadal did, 6-1, after an hour and 40 minutes.

It took an hour and 25 for Ferrer to beat another single-handed Spaniard, Albert Montanes, 6-2, 6-3, in a striking and high-quality battle between these two veterans. The 33-year-old Ferrer next plays the teenage wild card, Elias Ymer, who beat No16 seed Nick Kyrgios. And Lopez survived a final-set tie-breaker to set up a meeting with yet another Spaniard, Pablo Andujar.

In the top half, two of the big seeds failed to hold to their rankings. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga lost to Marcel Granollers, 6-4, 6-2, while US Open champion, Marin Cilic, lost to Victor Estrella Burgos, 6-4, 6-4.

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