Rampant Rafael Nadal strikes 10 again with victory over Thiem in Barcelona Open final
Rafael Nadal beats Dominic Thiem in straight sets to win the Barcelona Open title for a 10th time, securing his his 51st clay crown
Just seven short days ago, the famous centre court at the Monte-Carlo Country Club spelled out No10 in ball kids to recognition of the remarkable Rafael Nadal.
The Spanish champion had just become the first man to win 10 titles at a single tournament, at the Monte-Carlo Masters. Now, in the space of a week, Nadal has done it again, and this time at his ‘home’ tournament, the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell.
It was always going to be hard to see beyond the most famous and prolific champion at Spain’s most historic tennis venue and tournament. This master of clay-court tennis arrived in Barcelona as a nine-time former and defending champion, and at the Club where he won his first match at the age of 16, won his first title at 18, and passed his 50th match-win milestone this week.
No wonder the Club named its centre court after him this week—before he even added No10 to his resume.
But looking at Nadal’s form so far this year, the Spaniard was always the man to beat, even with world No1 Andy Murray at the other end of the draw.
After all, Nadal had 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 in Monaco.
Now it fell to the world No9 Dominic Thiem, one of the brightest stars to emerge from the post-90s generation, to face the biggest challenge not just in Barcelona but in clay-court tennis. The 23-year-old Austrian was the only man left standing, and the only seed Nadal faced in the draw.
Make no mistake, though: Thiem had it within his powers to win. He beat Nadal in Buenos Aires in a final-set tie-breaker a year ago, and was himself on a 22-9 run this year, 10-1 on clay. What’s more, he had beaten Murray in the semis to earn his tilt at the title.
Nadal was not overstating the case ahead of their match in saying: “It’s not a surprise that Dominic is in the final. He is one of the best in the world, and he loves clay.
“At the beginning of the tournament, he was already one of the main favourites to be in the final.”
Indeed in the first game, Nadal came under severe pressure on serve, and was forced to save a break point on his way to a hold. That would, however, be the only break point he faced in the match.
Thiem lived with Nadal, just, through the rest of the set, though was himself in trouble in the sixth game when he fended off two break points.
But Nadal was looking stronger and more confident with each game, and pressured the one-handed backhand of the Austrian, tested his speed with some pitch-perfect drop shots, and smashed any overheads with aplomb.
With perfect timing, then, Nadal earned his next chance to break in the 10th game, and Thiem felt the pressure. A couple of errors and a netted backhand, and Nadal had the key break for the set, 6-4.
The statistics through the tournament suggested Thiem had to find something special to stay in this contest: Nadal had yet to drop a set, and led the ranks in first serve points and service games won.
Thiem certainly resisted strongly in the early stages of the second set, but Nadal’s defence-turned-attack was making the Spaniard impregnable. Thiem saved three break points in the second game but was visibly running out of steam as his error count rose through two more breaks. Nadal pressed on, finally sealing the match and title, 6-1, with relative ease.
And so the Nadal juggernaut rolls onward: his second 10th title in a week, his 51st clay title, his 71st title overall, and looking every inch the aspiring champion for his 10th at Roland Garros too.
Indeed, by Nadal’s standards, the Spaniard has relatively few points to defend until the end of the clay season: the semis in Madrid, quarters in Rome, and the third round in Paris.
Thereafter, he has only 370 points to defend until the end of the year, so all at once, there is the prospect that Nadal could be in contention to regain the No1 ranking, too.
But then the Spaniard’s oldest rival, Roger Federer, has also come back from a long injury layoff to reassert his claim on the rankings in 2017. The Swiss has been consistent in playing down his No1 ambitions, but that does not mean he would not welcome the top spot if his form and fitness hold up through the rest of the year.
We are seeing, then, a tennis scenario that very few envisaged less than a year ago. That the two over-30 giants of the last decade and a half, Federer and Nadal—injured, absent, and slipping down the ranks—would be back and competing not just for the remaining Majors of the year but for the No1 ranking.
To the rest, then? The ball is in your court.