Rafa Nadal to Vic Seixas: Records Young and Old Set Barcelona Alight
Rafael Nadal, Spaniard extraordinaire, cannot stay out of the tennis headlines. At every turn, he is ticking off more records and this week, at Spain’s oldest tennis club, the prestigious Real Club de Tenis Barcelona-1899, is no exception.
Nadal already owns a replica trophy in recognition of his five consecutive wins in Barcelona—2005 to 2009. Now, at the event which began life as the International Championships of Spain, Nadal joins forces in the final with another Spaniard, David Ferrer, in an attempt to get his name on this trophy for the sixth time.
Nadal did not play in last year's event so, with his defeat of Ivan Dodig in the semi-finals, he takes his unbeaten stretch to 28 matches, and he also keeps the number of sets lost since his 2003 Barcelona debut to just two.
Nadal has already managed other records this week: more of that later. First, however, this popular, fashionable and—it seems—record-setting tournament has a few other notable performances to celebrate.
The First Champion
Until 2006, the finals in Barcelona were played in best-of-five-set matches and they went the distance on a dozen occasions.
The very first final was a straight-sets win but, in those pre-tie-break days, that said little about the length of the match. In 1953, it took 61 games to decide the winner and that man, Vic Seixas of the U.S.A., beat Argentine Enrique Morea, 6-3, 6-4, 22-20.
Seixas, now 87, may no longer be a household name but in that coronation year, he reached No. 3 in the world. He won Wimbledon and was runner-up at both the U.S. Championships and the French Championships (losing in the latter to Ken Rosewall).
Seixas went on to take the U.S. title the next year but he also had a formidable doubles record. He won the men’s doubles in all the Majors—in the French twice—and he won four consecutive mixed titles at Wimbledon.
And to put some icing on an impressive cake, he was three times captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team, winning the title in 1954.
So the Barcelona 500 provides an opportunity for a brief nod in the direction of a former champion, unheralded in today’s record books but a considerable force on the tennis scene for two decades: despite three years in active service as a pilot in World War II.
Read this interesting review about Seixas when he returned to Wimbledon for the Queen's Golden Jubilee in 2003.
And for a short taste of his playing style, check this news footage.
It is not enough that Spain’s favorite son, Nadal, is bidding for his sixth Barcelona title.
It is not enough that the roll of honor has to go back to 1996 to find a final without a Spaniard or to 2002 to find a champion who was not a Spaniard.
Nor is it enough that this year will mark the seventh time in the last 15 years that the title has been contested in an all-Spain match.
The Barcelona 500 still has the knack of filling its quarterfinals with a pot full of Spanish gold: It did so in 1994 and 1996, and again in 2001 and 2008, and it did so again this year.
This is not, however, the result of a plethora of lucky losers and wild cards in the draw—though there have been 15 players from the home country to help its cause.
Last week’s Monte Carlo’s Masters, with a similar 64-man draw, contained 11 men from Spain: This is not simply a case of home advantage but a country overflowing with talent.
Spain has 14 in the top 100, eight in the top 50 and, from next week, three in the top 10. And Barcelona is set yet again to produce a Spanish winner from another all-Spanish final.
Ferrer’s Golden Form
Ferrer has earned himself, for the second week and second tournament in a row, the unenviable task of bringing almost two years of Nadal supremacy on clay to an end.
The No. 4 seed, Ferrer, last week faced his friend and compatriot in only his second Masters final—Monte Carlo—and, just as in his first in Rome last year, he finished the loser.
And only a superhuman effort from the 29-year-old Ferrer could make the outcome any different this time.
But if there is one man who can deliver such a superhuman effort, it is Ferrer, one of the fittest, most tenacious, committed and hard-working players on the tour. He also happens to be enjoying some of the best form of his career.
With titles in Auckland and Acapulco, this is his fourth final of the season and his streak of form has taken him to a 30-month high of No. 6 in the rankings.
His form in Monte Carlo was outstanding—he lost just 17 games and no sets on his way to the final. He also put up a sterling fight against Nadal, attacking constantly and ripping his backhand for winners at every opportunity.
Had his serve not let him down so badly, he was close to taking the champion to a deciding third set.
Ferrer has reached the Barcelona finals twice before and lost to Nadal on both occasions. He is, though, one of only three men to take a set off Nadal in this event.
If fortune favors the brave, perhaps she will see fit to anoint Ferrer, in this Indian summer of a surge, as the first victor over Nadal on clay in 33 matches.
If she does not, Ferrer can still look on a 13-2 win-loss record on clay this year and know that he came closer than anyone.
The Growth of Almagro
At 25 years of age, the tempestuous Nicolas Almagro will shortly join the elite of tennis. Next week, following a semi-final finish in Barcelona, he will become the 17th Spaniard in the Open era to break into the top 10, a surge from No. 35 this time last year.
It seems an eternity since Almagro threatened to be the next best thing from Spain, though it was only three years ago that he rose to the very cusp of the top-10 after a stunning clay season that culminated in a quarter-final finish at Roland Garros.
Thereafter, he hovered in the 20s, slipping spasmodically into the 30s, as his promise of a break-through seemed perpetually doomed by his mood swings and loss of concentration at key moments.
Once more, however, he has put together a consistently high performance on the clay, with back-to-back titles in Costa do Sauipe and Buenos Aires and a runner-up place in Acapulco.
He has the most wins this season on clay—18—and overtakes Fernando Verdasco as the third-highest Spaniard in the rankings. That he achieved this top-10 breakthrough at his home event was particularly sweet.
“It was the third time I had a chance to get to the top 10, after Acapulco and Monte-Carlo…There’s no better place to achieve it than in my home club in front of my own people and my family and all the home support.”
While he can gain more points in Rome, Almagro will have to continue his good from into Madrid and Paris if he is to improve on last year’s results there. And if he is to continue his stay with the elite, he will need to carry that form through to the grass and the hard courts, too.
Perhaps, like Robin Soderling, Stan Wawrinka and Verdasco, he has taken time to find the assurance and maturity to convert talent into results. We shall soon know.
Here is another man making waves in his mid-20s, and Dodig’s biggest wave to date was his defeat of Soderling in Barcelona. He did it in straight sets, too, before beating the much younger up-and-commer, Milos Raoinic, in a considerably longer battle.
It then took the 26-year-old Dodig another three sets to see off Feliciano Lopez but the Croatian ran out of legs when put up against the clay wall of Nadal.
A year ago, Dodig was ranked No. 185, but with his best-ever season start in 2011, he broke the top 100 and is now on the verge of breaking into the top 50 after his semi-final finish this week.
The promise showed early in the year when Dodig was the only man to take a set off eventual champion Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open.
He then went on to win his first title at his home tournament in Zagreb: not bad for a man whose wins had come almost entirely from Challenger events and the qualifying rounds in 2010.
So it seems that perhaps good things come to those who wait. And Dodig has had to wait for the financial wherewithal to travel with the rest of the tour.
He played locally, almost gave up a couple of times, but stayed with it and is finally reaping a few rewards—like his first car.
It’s late in the day, but he aspires to do well at Wimbledon—his favorite event. It’s late in the day, but then there seem to be plenty of others out there who are also refusing to let the years get in the way of success.
Jurgen Melzer is certainly not finding his advancing years to be an impediment to his success.
The Austrian hits 30 next month but has, in the last fortnight, reached his first Masters semi-final in Monte Carlo and risen to his highest ranking—No. 8—for the fourth consecutive month. In fact he has, on average, risen a ranking place every month for almost a year.
Melzer has had good reason to be confident against Ferrer in Monte Carlo as he had beaten Ferrer in both their 2010 meetings, including a straight sets win at Roland Garros. Melzer had also beaten Novak Djokovic at the French Open and Nadal in Shanghai.
He won his home tournament in Vienna and was named Austrian sportsman of 2010. But best of all, he was the shock winner, for the first time, over Roger Federer in Monte Carlo’s quarterfinals.
Melzer made the quarters in Barcelona for the first time, too, and trails Tomas Berdych by just 25 points: No. 7 is in his sights. And as if all that wasn’t enough, he is the first player in 10 years rank in the top 10 in both singles and doubles.
He took time out this week to respond to fans’ questions on Facebook and revealed that, despite his continuing singles success, he prizes his Wimbledon doubles title from last year more highly than anything. That, of course, may change if he wins a big singles title.
He still has two chances of a Masters before he’s 30, but his problem is the same as everyone else’s. Those two Masters are both on clay and they are both owned by Rafa.
Rafa’s 500 at the 500
Monte Carlo ticked off two new mileposts in the Nadal tennis record books.
He reached a tally of 30 clay court titles and, in the process, won his seventh consecutive Monte Carlo Masters, though the latter merely topped his own record of six.
So coming on top of runner-up finishes in Indian Wells and Miami, the final in Barcelona this week makes four consecutive finals for the unflagging Spaniard.
The particular significance of reaching this final, however, is that it took him to the 500th win of his career—the second youngest player after Bjorn Borg to do so.
Nadal is now on a 33-match winning streak on clay since his fourth round loss to Soderling at Roland Garros in 2009. And he has, incidentally, lost just three out of the 76 sets played in that streak.
None of this will help the cause of Ferrer, the man Nadal has beaten on the last day in Barcelona twice before, and who he stopped last week in Monte Carlo.
Nor will it inspire confidence in the other men who face the prospect of this unstoppable clay force just when Madrid, Rome and Paris appear over the horizon.
But it will have more pencils being sharpened in readiness for yet more entries in those record books.