Barcelona Open 2021: Rafael Nadal goes for 12th title in stacked field

Draw features four top-10 players, including Monte-Carlo finalists Tsitsipas and Rublev

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

When the main show court of Spain’s oldest tennis club, and one of the most prestigious European venues in tennis, is named after a player who is still among the best active players in the world, it is clear that the man in question is an exceptional figure.

Pista Rafa Nadal will host said man, Rafael Nadal, when he opens his campaign to win a 12th title at the Barcelona Open. He will is the top seed, world No3, and arguably the greatest clay player ever to hold a racket, whether the court be in Monte-Carlo, Rome, or Paris. But Barcelona is arguably his ‘home’ tournament, a place where the Mallorcan star has accumulated 11 titles and a 61-4 record since winning his first title there at the age of 18.

As he approaches his 35th birthday, victory again would not only make him the oldest ever champion but take him back to No2 in the rankings.

However, while the man who denied him in the last playing of the tournament in 2019, Dominic Thiem, is absent, there are plenty of threats in a packed draw that boast three other top-10 players, led by the two men who contested the Monte-Carlo Masters last week.

No2 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas went on to win that title, No3 seed Andrey Rublev achieved the near-impossible task of beating Nadal from a set down in the quarters.

The Spaniard was going for his 12th title in Monaco, too, so he may be thankful that the budding rivalry between those two young players could bring them together in the semis rather than the final: Rublev is drawn in the bottom half.

But with all 16 seeds currently ranked 27 or higher, the threats do not stop with Tsitsipas and Rublev, and particularly not so in his half. In his second match, Nadal will play either Kei Nishikori or Cristian Garin.

The former may not be seeded as he works back up the ranks following repeated elbow injuries, but he is the only other former champion in the draw—2014 and 2015—with a 22-6 record in Barcelona. Meanwhile Garin has won all his five titles on clay, the most recent in Santiago this spring.

Also in his quarter are Karen Khachanov and Montpellier champion David Goffin, who reached the quarters in Monte-Carlo and is already into the third round before Nadal opens.

Head to the semis, and all the seeds have proved their worth on clay, notably Briton Dan Evans, who made the semis in Monte-Carlo in singles and the final in doubles—by far his best performances on clay ever. But the top seed in this quarter is No4 Diego Schwartzman, who won Buenos Aires on clay, while Fabio Fognini, who was the defending Monte-Carlo champion last week, has won eight of his nine titles on clay. Rounding off the seeds here is Pablo Carreno Busta, Marbella champion and a native of Barcelona.

But then there are Spaniards to watch out for throughout the draw, 10 in all, with another as the new tournament director, the prodigious player, now retired, David Ferrer.

However, Tsitsipas and Rublev may have the tougher route to their predicted semi-final clash. The Greek, who lost to Nadal in Barcelona in his first final three years ago, will begin against Jaume Munar of Spain. Then comes Alexander Bublik or Alex de Minaur, and the quarter-final will bring the survivor of a particularly tough segment featuring Denis Shapovalov, the exciting young Lorenzo Musetti, and Felix Auger-Aliassime, who is newly tied up with Toni Nadal.

As for Rublev, who leads the Tour with 24 wins this season, his quarter-final opponent could be the formidable and super-fit No5 seed Roberto Bautista Agut or the Miami finalist and Great Ocean Road champion, Jannik Sinner.

But will Nadal this week achieve what he could not do last week? After all, Monte-Carlo was just his first tournament since the Australian Open, and his first on clay since the belated French Open six months ago.

He has always been a player to thrive on plenty of court-time, and the unusually heavy conditions in Monaco denied him that. However, age is a tough task-master, and talking to the media ahead of his first match, he talked of trying to find the balance between advancing years and his desire to play as much clay as possible.

“Of course it is easier to win Roland Garros if you win events before, like I did almost all my career, but at the same time I am close to 35 and the situation is a little bit different.

“The main thing is to put myself with a chance, that’s the real goal for me. I want to give myself chances to be competitive in every single event. But it’s true that I didn’t compete very often for the last year, so coming back to competition, even if I feel comfortable, and ready for Monte-Carlo, it’s always tough.”

He confirmed that he intends to play the Madrid and Rome Masters before the French Open, a full schedule, but one that has yielded 13 titles at Roland Garros and countless Masters titles. His mantra now, as it has always been, is simple:

“I am trying to be ready for everything, but of course Roland Garros is an important one for me. I am trying to work every day with the right intensity and right attitude to reach that big point at the right moment.”

He will hope that Barcelona, as it has 11 times before, will give him the perfect stepping stone to that goal.

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