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By Richard Pagliaro | Sunday, April 25, 2021


Rafael Nadal saved championship point at 4-5 edging Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-4, 6-7(7), 7-5 in a three-hour, 38-minute thriller to win his record-extending 12th Barcelona crown.

Photo credit: Getty

Sequels seldom match original cinematic special effects—unless Rafael Nadal is driving the plot line.

Empowered by dynamic court coverage and dancing topspin drives, Stefanos Tsitsipas came within one point of bouncing Nadal off his namesake court.

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Staging a spirited stand, Nadal denied a championship point to hit his way into history.

The top-seeded Nadal saved championship point at 4-5 in the final set subduing second-seeded Tsitsipas 6-4, 6-7(7), 7-5 in a three-hour, 38-minute thriller to win his record-extending 12th Barcelona crown.

It is Nadal's 87th career title, including his record-extending 61st clay-court championship.

In the first Barcelona final featuring the top two seeds since 2008, Nadal avenged his grueling five-set loss to Tsitsipas in the Australian Open quarterfinals in a punishing and pulsating clash that had Spanish fans stomping their feet on the metallic stands before embracing both men with extended standing ovations for their efforts.

"I think I have room to keep improving," Nadal said. "It was not perfect. I really believe that I can play better than what I am doing on clay, and I hope that the victory today is going to help me raise the level that I need going forward to the next couple of events moving forward."

In a rematch of the 2018 final, Nadal edged Tsitsipas for the seventh time in nine matches raising his Barcelona record to 66-4, including a perfect 12-0 mark in finals, and propelling himself past Daniil Medvedev back to the world No. 2 ranking. Nadal did it all 16 years to the day after collecting his first Barcelona championship solidifying his status as one of sport's fiercest fighters. 

This thriller was jam-packed with high drama, some sensational running strikes, daring drop shots, mental fragility under stress and valiant play that saw both men save championship points.  

Monte-Carlo champion Tsitsipas, who went up a break at 3-1 in both first and second sets, saved a pair of championship points at 4-5 in the second set with some bold aggression then battled back from 2-4 in the tie breaker when Nadal blinked forcing a decider. 

Ultimately, the king of clay's running strikes and deep desire were decisive factors: Nadal fought off 11 of 13 break points, including saving a break point when he served out the match snapping Tsitispas' career-best nine-match winning streak. 

Despite the loss, Tsitsipas showed his level can be every bit as good as the best for best-of-three-sets. The 6'4" Greek handled Nadal's heavy topspin to his backhand for stretches, attacked effectively at times and held his own in running rallies with the best clay-court mover the sport has seen.

Tsitsipas navigated a test in his opening service game then amped up the aggression slashing a one-handed backhand for break points in the third game.

When the top seed lifted a forehand long, Tsitsipas had the opening break and a 2-1 lead. The 6'4" Greek was timing Nadal's heavy topspin well, stepping in to punish any shallow shots and striking with more conviction in the early stages. Tsitsipas streaked through a love hold to confirm the break.

The 34-year-old Spaniard's speed spooked Tsitsipas, who tried cutting a drop volley too fine, finding the net instead to face double break point in the eighth game. The top seed ended an 18-shot rally spinning a diagonal forehand to break back for 4-all.

Neither man was giving up much ground in the ensuing 10-minute game that saw Nadal commit some uncharacteristic miscues—netting a drop volley and sailing a forehand pass—before buckling down with some stinging wide serving to hold for 5-4. It was Nadal's second 10-minute hold of the set and the lost opportunities lingered in the lanky Greek's head.

The plot shift jolted Tsitsipas, who had been aggressor throughout much of the opener, as he double faulted and splattered a backhand trying to hit behind the Spaniard. Suddenly Nadal, who was battling from behind, was two points from the set. Streaking forward, Nadal thumped a smash for double set point.

The second set caught the top of the tape with a forehand that skipped out as Nadal snatched the 59-minute opener fighting off five of six break points in the set.

Seeing his sets streak snapped at 17 sets, Tsitsipas terminated a lengthy rally, lasering a forehand down the line breaking with a clenched fist in the third game.

For the second straight set, Tsitsipas went up a break at 3-1 and for the second straight set Nadal came charging back with a little bit of help from the man in red. Tsitsipas' creativity got the best of him when he bumped a routine drop volley into net with Nadal pinned near the back blue wall. Though he saved multiple break points, the second seed was burned by a backhand pass from Nadal, who broke back to level after six games.

Staring down double championship point in the 10th game, Tsitsipas saved the first snapping a smash and slid into a slick drop volley to erase the second. Dripping a drop shot to lure the top seed forward, Tsitsipas held for 5-all with a deft backhand volley pass.

Another plot twist saw Tsitsipas earn triple-break point at love-40 on Nadal's serve.

The Monte-Carlo champion had looks at second serves on two of the three break points, but Nadal stood strong then fired a whiplash forehand to erase the third break point. That rousing stand pushed the Spaniard ahead 6-5.

The second seed crowded the ball with his body yanking a forehand well wide to give Nadal the mini break and a 4-2 lead. Tsitsipas showed fine feel taking a backhand drop shot on the rise and shoveling it short to get the mini break back for 4-4. Nadal denied two set points, including streaking forward to dig out a drop shot then lunging for a stirring full-stretch forehand volley, to level at 6-all.

The 11-time champion had all the momentum, but sent a jittery double fault to face a third set point then netted a rally backhand as Tsitsipas snatched the second set with a firm come on!

Server dictated play throughout the first nine games of the final set. Tsitsipas spread the court beautifully at times using the sharp-angled crosscourt backhand to ward off his opponent's heavy topspin drives then stepped in drove the backhand winner down the line with a shot sequence that helped him hold for 5-4.

Jitters spiked as Nadal framed a forehand sitter and looped a forehand long to face stiff pressure of 30-all. A mis-hit backhand from Tsitsipas fell over with a groan and Nadal was up to another forehand sitter in plenty of time but spun it into the top of the tape facing championship point.

Spinning in a second serve, Nadal hung tough, lifting a forehand down the line to deny championship point. Shaking off some unruly forehands, Nadal held for 5-all with a slick side spinning drop volley.

Lingering hangover from championship point lost haunted Tsitsipas, who bungled a forehand sitter and hit a double fault. Nadal lofted a high lob off the baseline then kissed the tape with a drop shot winner for double break point. Tsitsipas saved both and dodged a third when Nadal nudged a low backhand pass wide. 

A deep return down the line brought Nadal a fourth break point and Tsitsipas missed the mark on a crosscourt forehand to give the top seed the break and a 6-5 lead.

Throughout this final tension seemed to hit Nadal most when he was ahead.

Serving for his 12th Barcelona title, Nadal spun his fifth double fault for 30-all and was handcuffed at net by a Tsitsipas drive to confront a break point.

Three hours, 35-minutes into this struggle, Nadal unleashed his faithful forehand terminating the trouble. Feinting a smash, Nadal carved out a forehand drop shot winner and threw a fierce uppercut for his third championship point.

When Tsitsipas' final forehand sailed, Nadal crashed to the court in an eruption of emotion winning his 87th career title. 

If you're like me, this final left you buzzed and breathless looking forward to the next meeting between these two champions.


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