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By Richard Pagliaro | Sunday, April 24, 2016

Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal edged Kei Nishikori, 6-4, 7-5, capturing his ninth Barcelona title and equaling Guillermo Vilas' Open Era record with his 49th clay-court championship.

Photo credit: Barcelona Open BancSabadell

Sweat streamed down Rafael Nadal's cheek, a streak of salmon-colored clay tattooed his calf and the white adhesive tape was frayed around his finger tips.

Nadal was too absorbed by the ball to notice the strain of the battle.

More: Nadal Storms Into Ninth Barcelona Final

Playing for clay coronation, Nadal didn't wait for Kei Nishikori to roll out a red carpet.

Charging forward, he knocked off a high volley for a pair of championship points and a place in history. Nadal broke serve in the final game of each set dethroning defending champion Nishikori, 6-4, 7-5, to capture his ninth Barcelona championship.

It was Nadal's 10th consecutive win and a milestone moment. Claiming his 49th career clay-court title, Nadal equals Hall of Famer Guillermo Vilas' Open Era record for most titles on dirt. The King of Clay now co-rules clay history with another iconic lefthander with the flair for the sweeping topspin forehand and devotation to the headband.

Number nine holds special significance for the nine-time Roland Garros champion, whose ninth Barcelona title comes one week after he lifted his ninth Monte Carlo championship last week.

More than the numbers, it's the purpose and passion Nadal has exuded during the clay season that has impressed. The world No. 5 has dispatched five Top 20 players—Dominic Thiem, Stan Wawrinka, Andy Murray, Gael Monfils and Nishikori—building a 10-match winning streak striking the ball with conviction when it matters.

Success breeds success and Nadal played critical points with confidence today. He saved seven of eight break points to snatch the first set. Moving into the court to apply pressure, Nadal showed sharp racquet skills winning nine of 12 trips to net.

Credit Nishikori fighting back from 2-4 down in the second set by driving the ball down the line and hitting some audacious drop shots that froze his speedy opponent. This was entertaining and draining tennis with some momentum shifts between two players who combined to claim 10 of the last 11 Barcelona championships.

This rematch of the 2014 Madrid final began with Nadal feeling early pressure. He withstood a 15-30 opening-game deficit touching the lines twice with his inside-out forehand.

Down double break point in his next service game, Nadal unloaded 124 mph heat wide then crunched an inside-out forehand, eventually holding for 2-1. Early escape empowered Nadal who earned the first break for 3-1 when Nishikori sprayed successive forehands.

The second seed's ability to hit the ball on the rise and rob Nadal's reaction time was clear in a jumping forehand down the line for triple break point. Nadal staved off two break points, but Nishikori, hitting early, went behind his opponent breaking back for 2-3.

Continuing to take the first aggressive strike in rallies Nishikori raced out to a triple break point lead in the seventh game, but Nadal answered with some of his most authoritative serving diffusing the mini-crisis for 4-3.

Tension from the score and Nadal's increasingly suffocating baseline play squeezed a backhand error from Nishikori, who faced a set point. Nadal stretched the reigning champion at net, raced forward and buried a backhand winner breaking for a one-set lead.

Despite outplaying the King of Clay for much of the 51-minute first set, nearly doubling his winner output (11 to 6) and earning eight break points compared to two for Nadal, Nishikori had nothing to show for it.

Shaking it off, Nishikori came back from 40-love down drawing a forehand error from Nadal to break in the opening game of the second set.

The twisting topspin forehand from Nadal forced Nishikori to confront some shoulder-high balls. He ballooned a pair of forehands giving back the break.

Upper cutting a curling forehand for his first emphatic hold for 2-1, Nadal went to work on Nishikori's serve. The Japanese tried to work over Nadal's backhand, but he broke open the point with a backhand crosscourt, followed a forehand down the line to net and knocked off a forehand volley breaking for 3-1.

The wide serve, inside-out forehand combination helped Nadal saved a break point in the fifth game. He denied a second break point navigating a demanding hold for 4-1.

A lapse in judgment cost Nadal, who let a Nishikori pass go by mistakenly believe it would land out. But the ball dropped in as a skipping Nadal dropped his head ruing that decision that put him in a double break-point bind. Nishikori cradled a soft forehand drop shot breaking for 3-4.

The jolting topspin forehand was a weapon in building the lead and nearly helped Nadal break back. Thumping a forehand winner down the line for a third break point, Nadal had the momentum. But he backed off a bit and didn't hit with quite the same conviction as Nishikori eventually fended off four break points. Despite an oddly intrusive time violation warning from chair umpire Carlos Bernardes in the game, the second-seed leveled, 4-all.

Confronting a match point courageously, Nishikori carved another forehand drop shot winner in the 10th game. Nishikori plastered a forehand down the line, his third straight winner, sealing an impressive hold.

A tremendous net exchange ended with Nadal knocking off a volley and throwing a fierce uppercut in the 12th game. Pushed backward for a lob, Nishikori sailed a tough overhead for double championship point.

When the champion flattened a forehand into net the Barcelona king had regained the crown after a two hour, four-minute skirmish. Soaring in the air, Nadal dropped to his knees looking like a man thrilled to be back home. The man from Mallorca has won 20 of 21 sets he's played in Barcelona finals and looks like a man intent on contesting more title matches in the coming months.


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