Starting the season ranked 2nd, Rafael Nadal has struggled with injuries and failed to produce his best tennis in consecutive tournaments. Rafa claimed two ATP titles this spring on his beloved clay, fending off a match point in both Barcelona and Rome to at least keep chances of finishing another season inside the top-10.
Rafa will not play in the rest of 2021 due to a foot injury, hoping for a fresh start in 2022. Thus, the Spaniard has lost five ranking positions to young guns born between 1996 and 1998, currently standing 6th and preparing to drop more spots in the season's closing stages.
Speaking about Nadal, Mats Wilander stated that he used his mental strength and fighting spirit in those tight encounters against Stefanos Tsitsipas and Denis Shapovalov, standing on the verge of defeat and still emerging victorious.
Competing in his 12th Barcelona Open final, Rafa toppled Stefanos 6-4, 6-7, 7-5 after grueling three hours and 37 minutes, saving a match point in the decider's tenth game! Thus, Nadal remained undefeated in the title matches at one of his favorite ATP events where the central court carries his name, lifting the 87th ATP title and the first since October at Roland Garros.
It was the longest best-of-three match of the season and the longest best-of-three ATP final in the last three decades, as the two rivals pushed each other to the limits from start to finish. Nadal saved ten out of 12 break chances and grabbed four return games to move over the top and score one of his most thrilling victories in the last couple of years.
Mats Wilander spoke about Rafael Nadal's mental strength.
In Rome, the Spaniard took down Denis Shapovalov 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 in the third round after saving two match points in the deciding set's 12th game! Denis blasted over 40 winners and stayed in touch with the king of clay in the shortest and mid-range exchanges to come close to the finish line and a brilliant win.
Still, Nadal returned from a 6-3, 3-0, 40-30 deficit, kept his composure and stole the second set to prolong the action and gain a boost. In the final set, the Canadian had a break in his bag before the Spaniard erased the deficit and played against those two match points at 5-6.
Rafa saved those and sealed the deal in the tie break to advance into the quarters before beating three more rivals to lift the tenth Rome Open trophy and join Novak Djokovic on 36 Masters 1000 crowns. "There's a chance that some of them will confront Nadal in the opening round and take the confidence away from him, especially if Rafa has to play a couple of challenging encounters.
I think that's Nadal's considerable strength; to play well in the opening matches and build confidence for the essential encounters from the quarter-final. Rafa had to save a match point in both Barcelona and Rome. How he did that? Because he is Rafael Nadal!
Still, the youngsters know they can beat him, which can open the door for someone like Jannik Sinner. The chances are not big, but they were not either when I won my first Roland Garros in 1982," Mats Wilander said.