In Barcelona 2016, Rafael Nadal survived a tough challenge from the two-time defending champion Kei Nishikori to beat the Japanese 6-4, 7-5 in two hours and four minutes, clinching the ninth crown at one of his favorite events where he never lost after reaching the semi-final!
It was the 49th ATP title on clay for the great Spaniard, matching Guillermo Vilas' record and looking good to pass the Argentine in the rest of the clay swing that spring. It was the second consecutive crown for Nadal after Monte Carlo and his last of the season, winning back-to-back titles for the first time since the summer of 2013 after struggling with injuries over the previous two years.
It was a very tight encounter, with both players serving at similar percentages and Nadal who delivered a little bit better numbers to win seven points more in the end. Rafa finished with 21 winners and 18 unforced errors while Kei played a decisive role in most of the points, finishing with a negative 29-34 ratio.
They had a similar number of break chances as well, with Nadal fending off ten out of 13 and earning five breaks from 12 opportunities to cross the finish line first and secure the ninth trophy in Barcelona, the first since 2013.
Nothing could separate them in the most extended exchanges and they split the shortest and mid-range ones as well, with Rafa having the upper hand in the quickest points up to four strokes and Kei who dominated in those with five to eight shots.
This match was a positive sign for Nadal in terms of his mental strength, producing a performance of a true champion and taking the crucial points to seal the deal in straight sets. We can't say he outplayed Nishikori but certainly played better when it mattered the most, with the defending champion missing too many easy shots, especially in the pivotal moments.
The result was going back and forth, with Nadal having an early lead in both sets and Nishikori bouncing back to force tight conclusions. Just two points decided the first set and Nadal pretty much escaped further struggle by saving seven out of eight break chances.
On the other hand, Nishikori had to play against two break opportunities and couldn't defend any of them, which cost him dearly. At 1-1, Nadal fended off two break opportunities and stole Kei's serve in the next one to forge a 3-1 advantage.
Nonetheless, he couldn't keep the lead for too long, just like many times in the past two years or so. Nishikori broke back straight away and had an excellent opportunity to turn the scoreboard around completely, opening a 40-0 lead on the return in game seven.
Nadal made a strong response, taking five straight points for a vital hold and making a crucial move in the tenth game when he broke his rival to grab the opener and momentum. Nishikori had many chances to make a more significant impact on return, reaching at least a deuce in four Nadal's games but scoring only one break.
In the second set, Kei experienced more troubles behind the initial shot, playing against ten break opportunities and saving seven of those. The set started with three breaks of serve in the first four games, two for Nadal who forged a 3-1 advantage.
In what was the longest game of the entire encounter, Rafa repelled two break chances and held after six deuces to stay unbroken, establishing a commanding 4-1 lead and moving closer to the finish line. Instead of bringing the match home safely, Rafa let Kei get back into the set, leveling the score at 5-5 after taking four of the last five games.
Just like in the opener, Nadal was stronger and more focused in the decisive moments, breaking Nishikori at 6-5 to wrap up the victory and celebrate another crown in Barcelona.