For top seeds Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, Barcelona feels a lot like home
It is hard to look beyond Rafael Nadal in Barcelona and almost as hard to see beyond Andy Murray as his final opponent come Sunday
It is, this being the week of one of tennis’s most historic venues and tournaments, hard to look beyond Barcelona’s most famed and prolific champion, Rafael Nadal.
This Spaniard, this master of clay-court tennis, arrives at his home tournament as a nine-time former and defending champion, and the favourite to win his 10th title just a week after winning his 10th Monte-Carlo Masters title.
One such feat is unparalleled: There is not a word for two such feats in the space of a week. And make no mistake, Nadal could even repeat the extraordinary feat with a 10th at Roland Garros, too.
No wonder the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell, played for over 60 years at the oldest tennis club in Spain, has named its centre court after such a champion. Nadal won his first match here at the age of 16, won his first title at 18, and will pass the 50 match-wins milestone if he reaches the quarter-finals. And looking at his form so far this year, it would take a brave pundit to bet against him going all the way to his 51st clay title in six days’ time.
After all, he bounced into this season, after an injury-blighted 2016, to make the finals at the Australian Open, Acapulco and Miami and to win his 29th Masters title in Monaco. Fully fit, and with his confidence as burnished as the sun-soaked clay of the Med, the Nadal gauntlet has been well and truly thrown down.
Yes, it is hard to look beyond Nadal in Barcelona, especially after the withdrawal of the only other multiple champion in Barcelona, Kei Nishikori, with injury.
Hard too to avoid fellow Spanish contenders among the 48. There are six Spanish seeds among 11 in the draw, including Albert Ramos-Vinolas, ranked at a career-high 19 after his giant-killing efforts in Monte-Carlo where he fell short against Nadal in the final.
But aside from the Spanish interest in the bottom half of the draw, where both David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro were brushed out of Spanish contention in the second round, there is another important storyline to follow at the top of the draw.
World No1 Andy Murray may not be Spanish, but he has abiding and happy memories of this city and its courts. He was only 15 when he left Scotland to try and fulfil his potential and ambitions at the Sanchez-Casal Academy, where he has been practising this week after taking a wild card into the Barcelona tournament.
He told ATPWorldTour.com: “I was here in Barcelona for two years and I loved it. It was the first time that I was away from my family home and even though it was hard, it was the first time I’d tasted independence. I would say that they were two of the best years of my life.
“I have great memories, not only from training and living here, but also because I played my first professional match on one of these courts, and I remember it well.”
He was 17 when he played that first match, ranked 397, and actually won the first set against the 79-ranked Jan Hernych before losing in three.
And soon after turning 18 in May that same year, he was already showing signs of what was to come: A third-round run at both Queen’s and Wimbledon, the final in Bangkok, losing to Federer, ending the year in the quarters of Basel and at 70 in the rankings.
He subsequently returned only three times to Barcelona as his career took off through the next decade, but now he has come back after a five-year absence as world No1, and Barcelona has honoured Murray, too: The Sanchez-Casal Academy has named its centre court in his honour.
Despite those formative years on Spain’s clay, it would take Murray many years to really master the red stuff in the way he mastered hard and grass courts. That was, in large part, down to a chronic back problem that eventually forced him to pull out of Rome and Roland Garros in 2013 and undergo back surgery later that year.
The rewards soon followed: In 2015 he won in both Munich and Madrid having never made a clay final before. And last year, he impressed still more, beginning with a semi run in Monte-Carlo, finals in Madrid and Roland Garros, and the title in Rome.
The rest of 2016 is history: undefeated on grass, winning his second Olympic gold, unbeaten through the last five tournaments of the year, claiming the No1 ranking with his first World Tour Finals trophy.
All of that, though, took a toll come this year and, also hindered by a bout of shingles, Murray has struggled to string together wins except for the title in Dubai. He then had to pull out of Miami with an elbow injury and only just made it back to court in time to play Monte-Carlo. Perhaps not surprisingly, he lost in his second match, and that gave him the time and incentive to add Barcelona to his schedule.
“I haven’t played many matches in the last five to six weeks so that’s the reason for coming here… I need to spend time on the practice court, but I came here to try and play matches, that’s the best way to adapt to surfaces against the best players in the world.”
As for his recovering elbow, he is happy with his progress:
“It’s good. I’m happy with how it felt last week. I didn’t serve as well as I would have liked but I didn’t have loads of time to practise beforehand, and I’m sure it will be better again [here].”
With so many points to defend through both the clay swing and the rest of the season, it will take some strong performances at every stage to hold onto the top spot, though as he said in Dubai, “I don’t need to stay at No1. I mean nothing bad happens if I go to No2: My life’s OK, no-one dies, it’s all good! But I mean, I want to try to stay there so I’m motivated to try and do that.”
The job has since become harder, of course, as a result of illness and injury, but Murray remains pragmatic.
“You have some of the best players of all time playing just now, and playing great tennis this year, and some of the young players are playing better too. So it’s going to be tough, but I’m happy to be fit and healthy again.”
His cause in Barcelona is not helped by drawing Ramos-Vinolas in his quarter: The in-form Spaniard beat Murray on his way to that final in Monte-Carlo. First up is Bernard Tomic, and other Spaniards in this section include No6 seed Roberto Bautista Agut.
As luck would have it, fellow Britons Kyle Edmund and Dan Evans, who drew one another in the first round in Monte-Carlo—with winner Edmund then facing Nadal—fell into the same segment again, the quarter headed by No4 seed Dominic Thiem.
Both Britons won their first matches—for Evans, a first main-tour win on clay—but Edmund then lost to Thiem, 6-1, 6-4. Evans, however, went on to beat No14 seed Mischa Zverev for his second straight win, and now it is his turn to face Thiem, with Pablo Carreno Busta the next highest seed in this quarter.
It is, though, hard to look beyond Nadal in Barcelona—and almost as hard to see beyond Murray as his final opponent come Sunday.