The “King of Clay,” Rafael Nadal, made his return to his sanctuary and his happy place, the red clay–at the recently concluded Monte Carlo Masters 1000 last week. It was Nadal’s first appearance since his rather unusual exit at the Australian Open earlier this year.
Early-season injuries for Nadal
The back problem that Nadal faced at the beginning of this season prevented the Spaniard from competing at the ATP Cup, Rotterdam Open, and Miami Masters 1000. He played the Australian Open with the injury concern, modulating his game enough to barely compete at the opening Grand Slam of the season.
However, World No.3’s injury seem to be behind him now as he is back on his fortress, his beloved red clay. But, is Nadal really back to his best on clay yet? The answer to this question is clearly a “no” as he appeared jaded and rusty in his shocking defeat in Monaco. He fell in the quarterfinal against a resurgent Russian Andrey Rublev. It was the Spaniard’s first ever three-set loss at Monaco in 79 matches so far. His first set against Ilya Ivashka in the first round in his home tournament of Barcelona was rather subdued as well. The 20-time Major champion eventually managed to raise his intensity as he survived the scare against Ivashka. Nadal triumph 3-6 6-2 6-4 in 2 hours, 20 minutes on the court named after him–“Pista Rafa Nadal.”
The 13-time French Open champion’s serving has been his main area of concern. This was evident in his first-set debacle against Ivashka–and he was broken seven times in his shattering loss against Rublev last week.
Nonetheless, Nadal is the champion who always believes in being in the present moment. He will aim to draw positives from his battling win against the Bel0russian as he prepares himself to lock horns against a tricky opponent, Kei Nishikori, in his upcoming contest in Barcelona.
Kei Nishikori’s struggles
The fallen Japanese star Nishikori is a two-time Barcelona Open champion himself, but is currently lacking consistency on the tour. He succumbed to opening round exits at the Australian Open and Open 13 earlier this season. The 2014 US Open runner-up overcame Guido Pella and Cristian Garin in three sets each in his opening rounds to find a place in last 16 in Barcelona. He aims to take on the nearly-invincible Spaniard on clay in his upcoming encounter.
On the ATP tour, Nadal heavily leads Nishikori 11-2 and the Spaniard is unbeaten on clay in this matchup. In fact, their previous two encounters on clay have been heavily one-sided with Nadal not letting the Japanese a sniff even at winning a set, let alone the match. The 11-time Barcelona Open champion starts as a strong favorite against Nishikori as he aims to advance a step closer towards his 12th title.
Nadal, who showed glimpses of his clay court prowess in the second and third set against Ivashka, would aim to be on the top of his game from the get go against Nishikori. He fancies building momentum with each passing tournament before heading into the French Open later this spring. While his groundstrokes have still fetched him decent enough dividends, the Spaniard’s serving has been lackluster in his last two matches. He must look for solutions as he is still in search of his maiden title this season.
Nishikori faces an uphill task. He is well aware that a win against even a dodgy and circumspect Nadal on clay would demand a monumental effort. The 31-year-old Japanese has been lackluster on the tour for quite a while now and he would hope that a contest against someone like Nadal might help him rediscover his lost confidence and form as he desperately looks to resurrect his so far indifferent season.
Rafael Nadal vs Kei Nishikori
On Pista Rafa Nadal, can Nadal find solutions to his ongoing concerns to tame Nishikori? Or will the 31-year-old Japanese punch above his weight to upset the “King of Clay” in his own backyard?
An interesting contest awaits us at Barcelona as Nadal and Nishikori lock horns for the 14th time on the ATP Tour. Nadal might be the favorite, but this is a must-watch match.
Main Photo from Getty.