Recording-making Rafael Nadal back where he belongs on Spanish clay: the champion
Rafael Nadal equals Guillermo Vilas' record of 49 clay-court titles by beating Japan's Kei Nishikori in the final of the Barcelona Open
What a difference a year makes. Just 12 months ago, Rafael Nadal arrived on his beloved home clay of Barcelona in desperate search of his old form and his depleted confidence after suffering an injury and illness blighted end to 2014.
He had lost in the first round in Doha to Michael Berrer. He lost to Fabio Fognini in the semis of Rio, then to Milos Raonic in the quarters of Indian Wells, and went out of Miami after a second-round loss to Fernando Verdasco.
As eight-time former champion at clay’s first Masters tournament, Monte-Carlo, he was beaten hollow by Novak Djokovic in the semis, and then here in Barcelona, where he was also an eight-time former champion, he lost in the third round to Fognini again. He would end the entire European spring season that he had dominated like no other without a title.
As is his wont, Nadal made no secret of the turmoil behind his tennis. After his swift Miami exit, he said: “The physical problems are in the past. I am in competition. I’m playing weeks in a row. Is not an excuse… [but] I am feeling more tired than usual, feeling that I don’t have this self-confidence that when I hit the ball I am going to hit the ball where I want to, go for the ball knowing that my position will be the right one… One of the tougher things has been fixed—now I need to fix again the nerves, the self-control on court.”
Fast forward to 2016, and still Nadal was facing challenges, still without a Masters title in almost two years, still without a title of any colour since July 2015, still facing as many questions as answers—and enduring only his second ever first-round Grand Slam loss in 44 starts at the Australian Open, again to the No45-ranked Verdasco.
Not only that, he arrived on Europe’s clay this year without a title, even a final run, through the South American clay swing as he soaked up losses to Dominic Theim and Pablo Cuevas.
Slowly, slowly though, there were signs of the old Nadal, including a strong run to the semis of Indian Wells, until illness hit him midway into his first match in Miami.
But take a look at him now.
Fully fit, and with his confidence as burnished as the sun-soaked clay by the Med, Monte-Carlo worked its magic. A record ninth title on one of his favourite courts, won from his 100th final, and the Nadal gauntlet was well and truly thrown down.
Arguably, though, Barcelona was just as important a test: He needed to reinforce his winning ways, and where better than on home soil against the man who had won the Barcelona title for the last two years, the second seed Kei Nishikori?
The Japanese man, however, was looking ready for the fight, and had yet to drop a set against some fine opposition. He immediately took the game to his opponent, striking the ball early, cleanly and crisply down each line with apparent ease.
Nadal was clearly also determined—and confident—of going for his shots. Most particularly, he went with growing belief to the famed forehand. And where it had often been broken down in recent months as each player learned from the one before that Nadal was struggling to find his full power on that wing, now it was back and in devastating shape.
In truth, it took the Spaniard a few games to warm to his task, or rather to absorb the penetrating pace of Nishikori. On every service game he trailed at some point, beginning with a double fault in the first, facing two break points in the third, three break points in the fifth, two more in the seventh. Yet Nadal it was who scored the first break in the fourth game before Nishikori broke back. And after surviving another deuce for 5-4, he went after the Japanese serve and broke at the key moment for the set, 6-4.
Nishikori was not daunted, and upped the aggression with some cracking returns of serve in the first game of the second set to break. But the advantage was short-lived, and Nadal broke twice for a 3-1 lead.
Nishikori almost broke through again in the fifth game, but on both break points, Nadal came up with that remarkable forehand, now down the line, now looping cross-court to fly from the corner. Nishikori showed a rare glimpse of frustration at this lost chances, but channelled his tennis into a love hold and broke in the next with a perfect drop-shot winner, and they advanced to 4-4.
Nadal failed to convert his first match-point at 5-4 up, but Nishikori was under constant pressure on serve and sure enough, right on cue, he sent a smash long to bring up another match point, and Nadal made no mistake this time: the title was his, 7-5, in just over two hours of high-quality tennis.
So in the space of a week, Nadal has once more catapulted himself into the reckoning not just for the other two clay Masters in the coming fortnight but for that 10th French Open title that slipped from his grasp in the face of Novak Djokovic last year. Now that would be some way to celebrate his 30th birthday.
For the moment, though, his nine Paris titles are now matched by nine in Monte-Carlo and nine in Barcelona.
And the master of clay has risen to share the Open era record for clay titles with Guillermo Vilas, at 49. One suspects, though, that it will not be long before Nadal is without equal—the king of clay at No50.
What a difference a year makes.