Barcelona 2021: Rafael Nadal survives match-point in epic final to beat Tsitsipas for 12th title

Nadal had two championship points in the second set, but went on to win the longest three-setter of the season

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal (Photo: Barcelona Open Bacn Sabadell)

The achievements of the extraordinary tennis player that is Rafael Nadal have been rehearsed many times, and particularly with the arrival of the red-clay season in April.

For the Spaniard has 60 titles on the red stuff, 25 of them at Masters level, and won his 450th clay match this week on the Barcelona court that is now named in his honour: Pista Rafa Nadal. And it is way back in 2005, when still a teenager, that this clay story took off. Eight of his 11 titles that year came from a clean sweep through Monte-Carlo, Barcelona, Rome and the French Open.

By the end of that year, still just 19, he was No2 in the world, and has gone on to win a record 11 Monte-Carlo and Barcelona titles, a record nine Rome Masters titles, and record 13 French Opens.

On paper, then, the history books suggest a certain inevitability about the outcome of his latest Barcelona final. After all, the man he faced in the 2021 final was a repeat of his 2018 victory, the teenage rising star, Stefanos Tsitsipas. Nadal allowed the young Greek just three games—but a lot of water has since flowed under the bridge.

For 2018 was Nadal’s last Barcelona title: he was beaten in the 2019 final by Dominic Thiem—though the Austrian was absent from this year’s draw. And Nadal did not manage to reach his round dozen in Monte-Carlo in 2019, either, beaten by Fabio Fognini—and he lost to Andrey Rublev in Monaco this year.

In the interim since Nadal beat Tsitsipas, the Greek’s star had also risen at speed. Back then, Tsitsipas was still playing qualifiers in Masters draws, and did not win his first title until the indoor hard courts of Stockholm at the end of 2018. Yet already the tall, charismatic single-hander was making big finals—indeed he lost out to Nadal at the Toronto Masters that same summer, and went on to beat him on the way to the Madrid Masters final in 2019. By the end of that year, he had also beaten Novak Djokovic in Shanghai and Roger Federer on his way to the ATP Finals title.

Now ranked No5 in the world, he arrived at this latest Nadal test with the Monte-Carlo title on his resume, and tipped for an upset on the Rafa Nadal clay. For also weighing in the Greek’s favour was that he was yet to drop a set since his quarter-final exit at the Miami Masters. Meanwhile, Nadal had dropped a set in his first two Barcelona matches.

Then there was their last meeting, in the quarters of the Australian Open two months ago, when Tsitsipas became only the second player to beat Nadal from two sets down at a Major.

Little wonder that Nadal summed up their ninth meeting thus:

“Tomorrow will be a very tough one. He is playing probably better than ever. Not one set lost in Monte-Carlo and here, so it will be the toughest opponent possible… It is going to be a tough one, but I need to be ready to increase my level.”

And so an epic encounter began. Nadal worked Tsitsipas to deuce in the Greek’s first service game, but it was his own serve that gave way in the third game, a break to love handing the initiative to his opponent. Tsitsipas held to consolidate a 3-1 lead.

Nadal was under concerted pressure on his next serve too, facing break points and multiple deuces before holding for 2-3 after a 10-minute battle.

Tsitsipas wasted no time in holding, however, slotting a crowd-pleasing backhand down the line, and taking a 4-2 lead. Nadal continued to struggle with the range and pace of the shots from the tall Greek, pressing the Spaniard wide and deep, and then back to the other side. He held, but he was up against it. However, this being Nadal and Barcelona, there was more to come, and a whipped forehand winner took the break back, 4-4.

Yet again, though, Nadal had to fend off break points, survive countless deuces, another 10-minute game, but again he produced huge looping forehands to force Tsitsipas wide and draw errors. The Greek, who looked to have control at the start of the set, now had to serve to save it, and the tension of the moment brought his first double fault.

Nadal would not be denied, finding his best forehand attack and backhand cross-court defence, to break for 6-4, finally notching up 11 winners to just seven from Tsitsipas.

The Greek again took the early lead in the second set to break for 2-1, but as before, Nadal returned the favour, and once again, served to hold for 5-4. Could Tsitsipas resist this time? The answer was swift: errors marred the Greek’s play and Nadal had two match points.

Except that the self-belief of Tsitsipas urged him to go on the offensive, use the drop shot, take volleys, and he lived to fight on. He even had three chances to break, but Nadal held.

Now it was a question of whether Tsitsipas could take it to a tie-break: He did, and then strung three great points together to serve for the set, 5-4. Another stunning point, both men at the net, went to Nadal, as did a forehand bullet, 6-6, but a double fault from the Spaniard offered up another set point, and this time, a big Tsitsipas serve did the business, 7-6(6).

As they headed to the three-hour mark in the third set, there was nothing between them: five holds of serve, no break chances, 19 points each. Tsitsipas had the scoreboard with him, 3-2, but Nadal was old and wise enough not to let that affect him. The sun was dropping and the colours intensifying, but Nadal held to love, as did Tsitsipas.

Nadal finally found himself serving to save the match, 4-5, and the level of play reflected the import of the moment. Nadal made the first mistake, rushing in for an easy short pass but he netted it: match point to Tsitsipas. Needless to say, Nadal saved it, helped by a timely net-cord, and he went on to clinch the game with a touch volley off his feet, 5-5.

It was the worst time to make errors, but one forehand error and a double fault did Tsitsipas no favours. Then Nadal pulled off a drop winner for three break points. Still the Greek battled, as the match overtook yesterday’s equally gripping contest in Serbia, where Djokovic was beaten by Aslan Karatsev in 3hrs 25mins.

But finally, the breakthrough came—to Nadal, who break at the fourth attempt, 6-5. He was not about to let this chance, an hour after his last championships points, slip, and he went out in style, 7-5, after 3hrs 38mins.

His court, and the fortunate fans allowed to watch this final, reverberated in celebration, but he soon admitted:

“I think I never played a final like this at this tournament. It was an important victory for me.”

For Tsitsipas, the bitter disappointment was written all over his face. He earned a prolonged and emotional standing ovation from the Barcelona crowd, but his wait for a first ATP500 title has to wait. Because, once again, it was Nadal who lifted one of the biggest, most ornate trophies in tennis—for a 12th time.

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