Rafael Nadal won his 49th clay-court title, equaling the record of Argentine legend Guillermo Vilas, with a 6-4 victory over Kei Nishikori in the final of the Barcelona Open. Nishikori had won the title in the Catalan capital for the past two years, but came unstuck over a closely-fought two hours and five minutes as Nadal came up with the goods at the big moments to land his ninth title at the event.
As well as adding further milestones to his gloried career, the victory made it 10 wins in a row for Nadal at the start of the European clay-court season. Having come into his favorite period of the calendar on the back of a desperately disappointing 2015 and a poor start to 2016. the 14-time Grand Slam champion has recovered some of his best form. With the French Open now less than a month away, his title in Barcelona to go along with his Masters 1000 crown in Monte Carlo last week gives him huge cause for optimism ahead of his attempt to reclaim his crown at Roland Garros and land an unprecedented 10th title.
Prior to last week in Monte Carlo, Nadal’s last title at one of the prestigious Masters 1000 events had come with a win over Nishikori in Madrid almost two years ago. Yet that triumph was only secured after Nishikori had suffered an injury when a set to the good, and with the Japanese star also having come out on top in Toronto last year, there was plenty of reason to expect a tightly fought duel, despite Nadal’s 8-1 head-to-head edge.
And, between two players who had made it through to the final without dropping a set, that’s exactly what it was. Both men held fairly comfortably in their opening service games, but that was to be an anomaly in a first set where the server was constantly out under pressure. Nishikori, the world No. 6 was playing at a high level and puncturing Nadal’s renowned defenses on a number of occasions. While Nadal was playing at a higher level than in his stuttering semifinal win over Philipp Kohlschreiber, there was little to choose between the two players in the final.