April 25, 2016
Rafael Nadal’s continued resurgence has left him on the brink of making fresh history, after he equaled the record for clay-court titles in the Open Era with more glory in Barcelona.
The superb Spaniard’s 6-4, 7-5 victory over Kei Nishikori in two hours and four minutes means that he has now amassed an extraordinary 49 titles on his favourite surface, bringing him level with the great Guillermo Vilas.
Now the question on everyone’s lips is: can Rafa complete his comeback with another Grand Slam crown at Roland Garros?
Nadal seems to realise that his serve is still vulnerable, even though he held his nerve often enough on the big points against Nishikori to prevail and secure his ninth Barcelona title when it mattered.
And you sense that Rafa will have to bolster that serve further still to fend off the challenge of the likes of Novak Djokovic when it comes to the big one in Paris.
Nadal commented later: ‘It was a very close match. 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 these important moments well mentally.’
But Nadal will also know that he let the Japanese star back into both sets when he enjoyed a commanding lead, 3-1 in the first and 4-1 in the second.
Nishikori fans will insist that temporary upturn in their favourite’s fortunes was more down to his own quality than any weakness in Nadal.
Whatever the reason, Rafa’s renowned will to win and raw aggression carried the day eventually. He is growing in confidence and enjoying the rewards for all that hard graft behind the scenes.
Nadal explained: ‘I’ve been working so hard to enjoy moments like this. I feel happy and lucky to be enjoying all this again.’
And yet there is still the possibility that Novak Djokovic, having suffered a few uncomfortable moments in recent times, will storm back with all the answers and exploit any openings Nadal gives him, should the pair feature in a new clash of the titans.
It is undoubtedly great for tennis that we can relish such a confrontation again, without being virtually certain who will come out on top. And as we have been reminded in the last few weeks, Djokovic is only human.
We should also salute Nadal’s refusal to fade away, his determination to return to something like his best, and the fact that he has set up such a mouth-watering summer for all of us.