Nadal equals VI­las’ record in Barcelona

This era’s clay-court king matches leg­end

The Herald - Herald Sport - - UPDATE - HAI­LEY MILNE

RAFA NADAL made his­tory at the Barcelona Open yes­ter­day by claim­ing his 49th clay-court ti­tle with a 6-4, 7-5 vic­tory over de­fend­ing cham­pion Kei Nishikori.

The Spa­niard’s suc­cess saw him equal Guillermo Vi­las’ ca­reer tour­na­ment tally on his favoured sur­face and con­tin­ued a re­cent re­vival that has seen the 29-year-old hit top form ahead of his bid to claim an his­toric tenth French Open crown at Roland Gar­ros next month.

“It was a very close match,” Nadal said. “There were a lot of chances for both of us but I think I have been solid. When you play against play­ers with such a high level, the match is of­ten de­cided by a few mo­ments. So I feel happy that I han­dled all th­ese im­por­tant mo­ments well men­tally.”

Af­ter los­ing to Fabio Fognini in the round of 16 last year, Nadal blamed his poor fore­hand. A year later, all Nadal’s power was back on dis­play, driv­ing fore­hand strokes past Nishikori when it re­ally mat­tered.

Nadal had seized the ini­tia­tive in the early stages, break­ing in the fourth game for a 3-1 lead fol­low­ing a bar­rage of his trade­mark big fore­hands. Nishikori, tri­umphant in the Cata­lan cap­i­tal in the pre­vi­ous two years, demon­strated his grit to draw level, but it was his Span­ish op­po­nent who broke de­ci­sively to take the open­ing set 6-4.

The Ja­panese player bounced back in the open­ing game of the sec­ond set, com­ing from 40-0 down to break but Nadal then ap­peared to take con­trol, break­ing twice him­self and win­ning on serve af­ter an epic fifth game that went to deuce six times, putting him 4-1 in front and hold­ing a seem­ingly in­sur­mount­able lead.

The pen­du­lum swung back, how­ever, and Nishikori, de­ter­mined not to re­lin­quish his ti­tle, reeled off three games in a row, sav­ing four break points in game eight to level at 4-4. And the World No 6 from Ja­pan again showed his class un­der pres­sure when he faced a match point at 4-5, pulling out an au­da­cious drop shot to stay in the match.

How­ever, two games later he found him­self 15-30 down af­ter Nadal’s su­perb de­fence proved key, the Spa­niard even­tu­ally tak­ing a point he had no right to win with a vol­ley into open court.

A weary Nishikori then put a tricky smash long to set up two cham­pi­onship points for the home­town favourite, and the Spa­niard made it back-to-back ti­tles for the first time since 2013 when Nishkori sent a tired fore­hand into the net to end the con­test af­ter a lit­tle over two hours.

“I have been work­ing so hard to en­joy mo­ments like this,” Nadal said. “The fact that I’m play­ing at home is al­ways even more spe­cial. I’m very happy and I feel lucky to en­joy this again.”

The World No. 5’s lat­est vic­tory fol­lowed on from his un­prece­dented ninth crown at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters last week and con­firmed the Ma­jorca-born star’s re­turn to the sport’s top tier af­ter a suc­ces­sion of in­juries over the past few years.

The 14-times Grand Slam win­ner, a nine-time cham­pion at Roland Gar­ros, is the only player to win as many ti­tles in a sin­gle tour­na­ment in the Open Era. Ar­gen­tine Vi­las, whose record Nadal equalled with vic­tory in Barcelona, won 49 clay-court ti­tles in the 1970s and early 1980s.

This era’s dom­i­nant clay-court force has the chance to sur­pass Vi­las’ fig­ures in May and stand alone as the record­holder for ti­tles on the sport’s slow­est

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