At Barcelona 2016, Rafael Nadal survived a tough challenge from two-time defending champion Kei Nishikori to win 6-4, 7-5 in two hours and four minutes, clinching his ninth crown in one of his favorite events! It was the 49th ATP title on clay for the great Spaniard, equaling Guillermo Vilas' record and looking good to pass the Argentine on the remainder of the clay tour that spring.
It was the second consecutive crown for Nadal after Monte-Carlo and the last of the season, winning consecutive titles for the first time since the summer of 2013 after struggling with injuries for the previous two years.
It was a very tight match, with both players serving at similar percentages and Nadal delivering slightly better numbers to earn seven more points. Rafa had 21 winners and 18 unforced errors, while Kei played a decisive role in most of the points, finishing with a negative balance of 29-34.
They had a similar number of break opportunities, with Nadal defending himself from 10 out of 13 and winning five breaks out of 12 chances to cross the finish line first and secure Barcelona's ninth trophy, his first since 2013.
Nothing could separate them in the more extended exchanges, and they divided the shorter and mid-range ones, with Rafa having the advantage in the fastest points up to four strokes and Kei dominating those of five to eight strokes.
This match was a positive sign for Nadal in terms of his mental strength, producing a performance from a true champion and taking the crucial points to seal the deal in straight sets. We can't say that he surpassed Nishikori.
Still, he certainly played better when it mattered most, as the defending champion missed too many easy shots, especially at the crucial moments. In the pre-event press conference, Rafael Nadal answered that it is too early to talk about his Roland Garros preparations.
But later on, he explained that as far as he is concerned, there will not be a significant difference.
Rafael Nadal on his Roland Garros preparations
Last year, the French Open shifted from May-June to September due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Even then, the Spaniard did not fail to retain his crown and won his 13th title at Roland Garros. “Of course, in the past, the other way worked very well for me, but last year worked well, and it was completely different.
I don’t know, I mean, the situation is how it is around the world,” Rafael Nadal said. However, the one-week delay has closed the gap between French Open and Wimbledon to two weeks, and the Spaniard highlighted that as the biggest concern.
“The only thing that is a little bit less positive is we have one week less between Roland Garros and Wimbledon. That is the main issue, more than about the preparations, for me personally, for Roland Garros. I don’t think it’s going to make a big change,” the Spaniard concluded.