Barcelona 2018: Rafael Nadal ends breakthrough Tsitsipas run to claim No11 – again

World number one Rafael Nadal beats Greek teenager Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-2 6-1 to win his 11th Barcelona Open title

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal won his 11th Barcelona Open title Photo: Marianne Bevis

Nothing to lose and everything to gain: that was how the beaming Greek teenager, Stefanos Tsitsipas, who faced the biggest test that tennis has to offer, greeted the prospect of playing Rafael Nadal on the clay of the Spaniard’s home tournament.

Tsitsipas faced the unparalleled clay master, world No1, the 10-time Barcelona champion fresh from his 11th Monte-Carlo title, and he faced him on the court that now bears the Spaniard’s name at the historic Real Club de Tenis Barcelona.

Nadal was as fresh and fit as he ever had been for the start of his beloved clay season after an injury-enforced 10 weeks out of competition, and had set a 57-3 win-loss mark to the reach the final.

He had scored his 400th match-win on clay. He had reached a record 44 consecutive sets on clay dating back to his 10th French Open victory last June—and in that run, he had dropped five games in a set only once. It was Martin Klizan in the quarter-finals who had the temerity to do so—but then the Slovak only managed five games in the entire match.

Nadal had to defend his Barcelona title to keep the No1 ranking—otherwise Roger Federer would overtake him—but then, judging by his Monte-Carlo and Barcelona results, that was as good as a foregone conclusion. He had, after all, beaten Dominic Thiem, Grigor Dimitrov, Kei Nishikori, and David Goffin for the loss of no more than five games apiece.

So… Tsitsipas really did have nothing to lose. Ranked 201 a year ago, the former junior No1 had been promising big things since he joined the senior tour, and his expressive, single-handed, all-court game was a crowd-pleaser already.

Still just 19 years old, he started 2018 as the first ever male Greek player to break the top 100. He was still in the qualifying ranks for ATP tournaments, though directors were starting to recognise the potential of the charismatic youngster, and some were helping him along with a few wild cards, too.

In reply, he made the quarters in Doha and Dubai, and then came through qualifying to win his first main-tour clay match in Monte-Carlo last week. But in Barcelona, he was really finding his clay feet against some of the best clay-courters in the draw.

He disposed of No7 seed Diego Schwartzman and No10 seed Albert Ramos-Vinolas. Then he scored a major coup with the straight-sets defeat of No3 seed Dominic Thiem, and made his first final with another big scalp, No5 seed Pablo Carreno Busta. It made him the youngest player to reach the Barcelona final since Nadal himself in 2005, and Tsitsipas had also done it all without dropping a set.

So… Tsitsipas had nothing to prove either. No wonder he admitted before this final:

“I really cannot think of a better free lesson than to play Rafa on clay! It will be my first time against Rafa, I think he will be more confident than me. But I don’t have anything to lose, I just have to play my game that I was playing the entire week.”

With the same exuberance as he brings to his tennis, he concluded:

“I was preparing for this match already 10 years [ago]. I’m going to go out there, enjoy it, and play my best.”

He began just as confidently with a love hold—and two forehand winners. But things would take a swift turn for the worse. The Greek made some brief inroads on the Nadal serve, but the rain that had threatened to delay the start of the match returned with a vengeance. The two men were forced to sit out a heavy shower, but took to court again with rain still in the air and the wind blowing.

There are no conditions on clay that Nadal has not handled many times before, and the damp ground and heavy balls were grist to his mill. He held, then broke to love, and the sun returned in time to see him hold through a rare deuce for 3-1.

Tsitsipas was being run ragged at the baseline, and forced into more and more errors. Nadal picked on any less-than-perfect drive to ghost to the net, broke again, and produced a glorious high smash behind his back to hold with ease. The Greek held for one more game but the Spaniard served out the set, 6-2.

A great front-runner, Nadal wasted no time in taking the initiative in the second set on the now sunny court. A break, a love hold with a bullet of a forehand winner down the line, and a break to love, 3-0.

But he did waver, just enough for Tsitsipas to penetrate his defences on the baseline with a backhand winner. A double fault and another error, and the Greek had break point. But Nadal’s serving from the Ad side was simply too good, and drew the error. Three deuces and two more break chances would come and go, but with his defence as resolute as his devastating forehand, Nadal did not acquiesce.

Tsitsipas continued to go for his shots from the baseline, but was off balance too often, and passed at the net with ease. He managed to hold serve just once, and Nadal was champion after just 78 minutes for the loss of only three games, 6-1.

Was there ever any doubt? Frankly, after the first game, no. It was not a clean match—and certainly had too many errors and relatively few winners to be called a classic. But it was memorable for two things.

Nadal now has 11 Barcelona titles to go with those 11 in Monte-Carlo—and will head into another week as No1, his 171st. He next has to defend his Madrid Masters title, and it is hard to see anyone stopping him if he continues to play this well, especially having conceded so few games or hours along the way.

But it has also been a fine week for one of the brightest stars on the #NextGen tour. Tsitsipas will be remembered in these parts, not least for his eloquent parting shot:

“I have loved my stay here, the emotions were unbelievable, and I never felt so happy playing a tournament.”

He seems on track to return next year as a seeded player if his progress continues on this surging trajectory: He will reach a career-high 44 tomorrow, and second on the Road to Milan.

But Nadal heads to Madrid with another milestone ticked off: He is now level with John McEnroe in fourth place for Open era titles, at No77. His run of sets remains intact, now at 46, and his run of clay wins extends to 19. Who knows where it will end.

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