Rafael Nadal Tops Winners and Losers at Barcelona, Bucharest and Stuttgart
Suddenly Rafael Nadal looks more like his former championship self after he streaked to an impressive title at the Barcelona Open. The King of Clay is now tied with Guillermo Vilas for 49 career titles on clay, and it looks like he has a good chance to get the record-breaker sometime next month.
While the tennis world eyes Nadal’s resurgence, there were tournaments in Bucharest and Stuttgart that set up other winners and losers.
And what was going on with the weather in Munich as qualifying matches set up this week’s upcoming action?
All of this and more as we examine an important transitional week and the differences in how many of the stars peak for the French Open.
Loser: Spanish Players at Barcelona
Rafael Nadal restored the Barcelona Open championship to Spain, but it was an otherwise forgettable tournament for the other Spaniards.
There was fully one-quarter of the draw (12 of 48 players) filled by Spanish players, but only the 29-year-old Nadal made his usual impact.
For starters, world No. 9 David Ferrer was unable to participate due to a leg injury that has hampered him thus far in the clay-court season.
Then there was the curious quirk of the draw. Five Spaniards and one “bye” occupied the top six slots of the bracket, meaning that they dueled and eliminated each other with Nadal of course getting to the quarterfinal.
The other seven Spaniards in the draw combined for a 4-7 record with only Feliciano Lopez making it as far as the round of 16. No. 5 seed (ranked No. 17 in the ATP) Roberto Bautista Agut lost his only match to 19-year-old Karen Khachanov.
Although Nadal’s aging has been a huge story for more than a year, the great boom of Spanish players has grown long in the tooth after a decade of golden success. Who will step up in the future?
Winner: Fernando Verdasco
Spanish veteran Fernando Verdasco was noticeably absent from Barcelona, but Bucharest turned out to be the right option.
While Rafael Nadal was ripping up Barcelona, Verdasco reached Bucharest’s final through a softer field and will attempt to win his first title in two years with a delayed Monday event.
Now aged 32, Verdasco carved out a noteworthy career behind hard-hitting lefty groundstrokes. He will be most remembered for his marathon semifinal loss to Nadal in the 2009 Australian Open semifinals, and his two-sets lead over Andy Murray in the 2013 Wimbledon quarterfinals.
Verdasco is a great clay-court player despite only four titles on this surface pending Monday’s final. He is the answer to the trivia question that would ask who won the Barcelona Open when Nadal skipped the 2010 tournament to get rest.
Had it not been for Nadal, Verdasco could have perhaps chalked up many more clay-court titles and carved out a borderline top-10 career.
There are only so many titles to go around this time of the year, and Verdasco will savor or rue this opportunity against 22-year-old Luca Pouille.
Loser: Rain and Snow on Clay
Weather can be a problem in the springtime, even in sunny Europe where clay-court tennis is supposed to shine.
In the 2012 French Open final, rain interrupted momentum in different ways for both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic before it was ultimately finished on Monday. It even postponed Andy Murray's first clay-court final a year ago at Munich.
This weekend, rain pushed the Bucharest final to Monday where Fernando Verdasco will need to wait another day to try for his seventh career final. Snow in Munich is the more unusual story.
ATP World Tour documented the cold prospects of having clay-court tennis interrupted by snow during Munich's qualifying rounds, but it’s probably less offensive and slick than it would be to create an egregious blue-clay surface at a Masters 1000 venue.
Oh, right. That actually happened at Madrid in 2012.
Winner: Angelique Kerber
The top player this week in the WTA was from another workmanlike effort from Angelique Kerber. It hasn’t been easy for the German veteran since her surprising win over Serena Williams in the Australian Open final, but the world No. 3 has quietly been grinding out wins.
This past week she drove away with the Stuttgart title and a shiny red Porsche, crushing compatriot Laura Siegemund 6-4, 6-0. It was a draw with eight strong top-10 caliber players including Agnieszka Radwanska, Garbine Muguruza, Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova.
Kerber’s defensive hustle and tenacity makes her a solid contender for the French Open, but her confidence in winning big matches is perhaps just as important while many of the WTA's top stars have been inconsistent.
The 28-year-old has a chance to add more special titles, and the French Open is definitely in the cards with her preferential seeding.
Loser: Andy Murray Dropping Munich
Andy Murray’s 2015 clay-court breakthrough at Munich will not be defended. The Scottish superstar who lost a three-set semifinal to Rafael Nadal at Monte Carlo last week will take extra rest to get ready for his title defense at Madrid, beginning next week.
Murray recently told Eurosport that winning the French Open would be his biggest achievement:
Clay has always been the most challenging surface for me since I came on the Tour, but I’ve also kept improving on it and my results at the French Open over the last few years have got gradually better.
If I was able to win the French or even reach the final then it would be a big, big achievement for me because a few years ago I didn’t know if that was going to be possible. I’ve kept trying to improve on the surface and my results have got better the last few years.
While Nadal was polishing off two big clay-court titles, Murray has followed Djokovic with more of a plan to pace himself during the clay-court season. It’s a more cautious approach than stars used to take when they showed up to play five or more big events in Europe.
While Nadal is peaking on clay, Murray’s comments about winning the French Open seem a little curious given that he’s going to put all his eggs into May. If it works for either the Scot or Djokovic, it will continue to be the trendy blueprint.
Otherwise, if Nadal or Dominic Thiem break through with the French Open title after extra clay-court tournaments (Thiem will be at Munich this week), that could be the renewed path for future success.
The stars can do what they want, but it would be nice to see players defend their titles, especially in the case of Murray who had his biggest year on clay with his 2015 start in Munich.
Winner: Benoit Paire's Tweener
Benoit Paire has long been one of the most talented players on tour, and he got to the Barcelona semifinals against Kei Nishikori.
Bold stuff in winning the point, but of course Paire lost the match 6-3, 6-2. If titles are not so easy, at least his showmanship got a little publicity.
Maybe tennis is ready for a 21st-century tour of something resembling the clownish tricks and stunts from Romanian legends Ilie Nastase and Ion Tiriac. Fifty years ago, the two stars helped promote their own way into tennis with doubles and fan-friendly tennis.
While there’s the International Premier Tennis League in December, Paire’s individual stunt puts a smile to the faces of fans and reminds us that there will always be room for entertaining shots and audacious tennis.
Loser: Kei Nishikori
There was no “three-peat” for Kei Nishikori at the Barcelona Open where the Japanese star relinquished his two-year championship rental back to Spain and Rafael Nadal.
And really, despite a good match of quality points, he was always a step behind the Spanish legend, as he was in his loss to Nadal in the quarterfinals at Indian Wells.
It’s a bit disconcerting for Nishikori’s chances to make a run at the French Open. He wasn’t exactly exposed, but he does not have the weapons of Novak Djokovic, Nadal, Stan Wawrinka and Dominic Thiem among others. He would need to play perfect, efficient tennis, take successful risks and hope for help from the draw and lackluster play from his opponents.
Barcelona’s draw was more about Nadal than Nishikori, which was a lost opportunity for the Japanese player’s chances to make a statement at the very top.
Winner: Rafael Nadal
It’s almost as if Rafael Nadal time-warped to 2012.
A week after capturing the Monte Carlo Masters, he swept through Barcelona, downing world No. 6 and two-time defending champion Kei Nishikori 6-4, 7-5.
It’s the ninth time Nadal has won Barcelona and the eighth time he followed up a Monte Carlo title with Barcelona. Seven of those eight “doubles” (2005-08, 11-12) were the forerunners to the French Open title.
Of his 49 career clay-court titles, 27 have been scored at Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Paris. Throw in seven more at Rome and that's four tournaments producing 34 titles. It's domination on its own pedestal.
The Spaniard’s grinding tennis style has been augmented by more offensive punch at critical times, and his confidence is soaring.
Although he faced a spirited effort from Nishikori’s lively groundstrokes, Nadal bulled his way to victory with greater clout. There was one particular point when the Spaniard turned on a skidding slice shot in his deuce court and pulled it quickly and powerfully through his opponent's ad court.
Has Nadal now made himself the clear challenger to world No. 1 Novak Djokovic for the French Open? It will be interesting to see if he can keep up his strength and precision through the upcoming massive tournaments at Madrid, Rome and Roland Garros.