Tsitsipas continues winning ways to set second Barcelona final against Nadal
Tsitsipas up to 26 wins in 2021, including a current 9-0 clay run; Nadal will go for 12th title
With 10 players ranked in the top 20 in this year’s impressive draw for the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell, this historic event always promised to provide some fine tennis from some inspiring match-ups.
Topping the draw, 11-time champion Rafael Nadal was hoping not just to reach a round dozen titles at a tournament he calls home but also to reclaim the No2 ranking conceded to Daniil Medvedev a month ago. Unusually, the mighty Spaniard had failed to do so at the Monte-Carlo Masters, where he also targeted a 12th title, but now he had weathered a couple of storms to reach his 13th semi-final on the court that now bears his name: Pista Rafa Nadal.
After dropping a set in his first two matches, including a tough contest against Kei Nishikori, Nadal looked more like his old self as the conditions this week warmed a little and dried a lot. He dismissed Cameron Norrie for the loss of only five games, notching up his 450th win on clay—and promptly headed off to the practice court to consolidate that clay groove still further.
No6 seed Pablo Carreno Busta was also chiselling out some good tennis in Spain. He won Marbella at the start of April, and in Barcelona had come through the strong clay credentials of No4 seed Diego Schwartzman after more than two and half hours.
His problem was that he had lost all seven previous matches against his compatriot, and did not sound entirely confident that the stats would change in the semis:
“Tomorrow I have toughest match on this surface that you can play… I’ll just try to enjoy the moment.”
Surely, though, the tougher challenge to Nadal’s dominance in Barcelona would come from the bottom half, where the cream of the new generation of top-20 players had overcome their rivals to reach a third showdown.
No2 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, hotfoot from winning his first Masters title in Monte-Carlo, saw off fellow 22-year-old Alex de Minaur and then 20-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime to reach the semis without dropping a set. Indeed he had not dropped a set since losing his quarter-final in the Miami Masters against Hubert Hurkacz.
He was now up to 25-5 for the season—and had beaten Nadal to reach the semis at the Australian Open, too—and his movement, confidence, and all-court abilities were improving with every month he played.
He did, though, take on one of the fastest improving stars on the scene, No11 seed Jannik Sinner, still only 19 but having bookended titles to end 2020, Sofia, and begin 2021, the Great Ocean Road Open.
The young Italian made his top-100 debut in 2019, ended 2020 as the No1 teenager, and broke into the top 20 following an outstanding run to the Miami Masters final earlier this month.
In Barcelona, he had beaten the super-resilient No5 seed Robert Bautista Agut, and then one of the top players of the last six months, Andrey Rublev, to become the youngest Barcelona semi-finalist since Nadal himself 16 years ago. Now he faced Tsitsipas for the third time, having shared wins at their two Rome meetings.
However, Tsitsipas’s confidence, never really low, had expanded with his shoulders since that Monte-Carlo victory. He opened proceedings with a hold, while Sinner found himself saving two break points straight away, but he did so, and then earned two chances of his own with a net finish. Tsitsipas hurtled forward to slice a fine backhand volley winner on the first, served big on the second, and he too held.
Once again, Sinner saved a break point to level at 3-3, as each man tested and probed the other, but also missed a few chances. The teenager had a still bigger test in the eighth game, 0-40 down, and this time, Tsitsipas capitalised to break, and served it out with a forehand volley winner, 6-3.
Sinner seemed unable to find his usual level, and his first serve languished at 50 percent, but he had Tsitsipas under pressure in the fourth game of the second set, forcing forehand errors for two break points. The Greek, though, served big and raced in to finish at the net: They were ambitious and bold tactics, the kind that have come to characterise the charismatic Tsitsipas game.
He pressed once again in the fifth game to get the break, and his big, rangy serving gave Sinner little room to get into rallies and break back: The Greek led 4-2. He went on to serve it out, 6-3, in an hour and 23 minutes, 17 winners to the good, nine points won at the net, and with some great serving statistics, too.
In the end, the three years’ difference in age and experience shone through: Neither was playing at their best, but Tsitsipas remained assured about his attacking game plan, confident in his serve, and was the bigger man and presence on the court.
He said: “I think my level of concentration and patience are paying off pretty well… I know there will be tough moments but I try and face them with maturity.”
Three years ago, Tsitsipas made one of his first breakthroughs at this tournament to reach his first 500-level final. The man who beat him then was Nadal: Would he face the same opponent in 2021?
Nadal brought his quarter-final form to bear on Carreno Busta, and then some. He broke in the second game, and then again to serve for the first set, only to double fault on break point, 5-2. In contrast, the No6 seed threw down three aces to hold, 5-3, and then worked three more break chances against the former champion.
However, some timely big serves saved them, and on his second set point, Nadal outlasted his compatriot after 10 minutes to hold, 6-3.
Nadal was back on form in the second set, breaking immediately, and then holding for 2-0. Carreno Busta faced three more break points in the third game, and hard as he battled to save two, he could not resist: Nadal broke again, and held for 4-0.
The younger Spaniard forced Nadal to serve out the win at 2-5, and Nadal duly obliged 6-2, after an hour and a half. His assessment?
“I think I have improved though the week. Today was my best match.”
The Spaniard leads the head-to-head over Tsitsipas, 6-2, but even so, the Greek has enjoyed some notable results, even on clay: He beat Nadal in the Madrid semis in three sets, though his five-set victory at this year’s Australian Open will be top-of-mind for both men.