Rafael Nadal won a record-equalling 49th clay-court ATP title on Sunday as he beat Kei Nishikori 6-4, 7-5 in the Barcelona 500 event.
The 29-year-old Spaniard won his 69th career title and his ninth on the red clay of Barcelona in an enthralling encounter with his Japanese opponent, winning in just over two hours.
Despite opening the match with an uncharacteristic double fault, Nadal regained his usual composure to hold in the opening game, with his brutal, trademark forehand wrapping up the game.
Nishikori responded with a hold of his own, a love service game, with the Japanese getting the better of his opponent in the match’s preliminary gruelling rallies.
In the next game, Nishikori then had two break points at 15-40, but Nadal was able to fight back to deuce, thanks in many part to the destructive forehand of the Spaniard rescuing the game once again; a fantastic hold and one that would be even more important just a game later.
The Japanese attempted an ambitious drive volley, then mishit as he failed to deal with Nadal’s awesome power before striking long to gift the break to the Spaniard.
However, Rafa was unable to consolidate his advantage as Nishikori fought immediately back, breaking Nadal’s very next service game as the Spaniard sent a backhand wide at 30-40 to make it 3-2 Nadal.
The sixth game of the match was a belting one, with the first point a ferocious rally eventually won by Nadal, but Nishikori fought back, and with the help of a couple of masterful winners, won the game to level up the first set once more.
Then, at 3-3, Nadal faced three break points as Nishikori opened up a 0-40 lead, only to be pegged back by the King of Clay to deuce, with Rafa’s forehand and serve getting him through the game, putting the pressure back onto the Japanese player.
But Nishikori was able to weather the storm of barraging attacks from Nadal in the eighth game, as he levelled it up once again before Nadal held serve with a couple of timely first serves helping to seal the game.
Nishikori, though, failed to hold his serve as Nadal took the opening set 6-4; an unforced error by the Japanese gave Nadal the upper hand, with the set being clinched in a cruel manner as Nadal’s shot clipped the tape and looped over Nishikori at the net.
Nishikori battled hard to win the opening game of the second set as Nadal, despite being 40-0 up, dropped his serve once again. But, just as Rafa had done in the first set, Nishikori was unable to consolidate his break, with Nadal biting back immediately to level the set.
Nadal then held to make it 2-1, aided by a marvellous forehand pass, before breaking his opponent again with a decisive volley to make it 3-1. In the fifth game of the second set, Nishikori pushed Nadal all the way and must have been wondering what he needed to do to break down the clay-court specialist. After six deuces, Rafa eventually held for crucial, crucial game.
It was not all over by this point, though, as Nishikori excellently held to love before breaking Nadal with a fabulous drop shot clinching the game, pulling him back into contention as the Japanese brought the second set level with a brilliant hold, fending off four break points from the number one seed as he made it 4-4.
Nadal, being the champion that he is, was able to handle the pressure of three consecutive games going the way of the Japanese second seed and responded with a fine drop volley to clinch the game, forcing Nishikori to serve to stay in the final.
With Nishikori facing championship point against him in the tenth game of the set, no one could quite believe their eyes as he performed the most audacious drop shot on the most crucial point of the match, saving the match point before going on to hold to make it 5-5. Ridiculous.
Nadal was unfazed by this and continued to perform well as a ninth Barcelona Open title was within touching distance; a fairly solid hold meant that Nishikori, again, had to serve to stay in it. Some more incredible defensive work from Nadal and a wayward smash gave Nadal championship point again, but this term Nishikori hit the net and Nadal had done it.
The win meant that Nadal regained the title off Nishikori, who dropped his first sets of his tournament in the final, and sets the Spaniard up well as he continues to prepare for his beloved French Open. After winning in Monte Carlo last week and notching up another title this weekend, Nadal looks back to his best on his favourite service as he eyes up the ultimate goal, a tenth Roland Garros crown. One would presume that Novak, Roger & co have other ideas…