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By Richard Pagliaro | Thursday, April 22, 2021

Rafael Nadal

In a battle of Barcelona champions, Rafael Nadal won five of the final six games subduing Kei Nishikori 6-0, 2-6, 6-2 to surge into the Barcelona Open quarterfinals for 14th time.

Photo credit: Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell

Spanish fans stomped their feet creating a metallic-sounding stampede as Rafael Nadal seized match point.

Nadal answered the call exerting closing power.

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In a battle of Barcelona champions, Nadal won five of the final six games subduing Kei Nishikori 6-0, 2-6, 6-2 to surge into the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell quarterfinals for 14th time in 16 appearances.

It was an uneven and entertaining match with Nadal dominating the opening set, Nishikori commanding the second set and the top seed fighting off five break points in the final set, including digging out of a triple-break point hole in his first game of the decider.

Competing with his familiar ferocity, Nadal was too passive at times, but turned it on at the end roping a forehand winner down the line to close his third straight tight test in two hours, 19 minutes.

The top seed raised his Barcelona record to 63-4 as he continues his quest for a 61st career clay-court title and tries to build confidence in his game. Nadal has dropped a set in each of his opening Barcelona matches for the first time following his three-set win over 111th-ranked qualifier Ilya Ivashka yesterday.

The 11-time Barcelona champion craves repetition and will try to find his consistency in his third quarterfinal in as many tournaments this season when he faces Cameron Norrie for a spot in the final four.

The left-handed Briton built a 6-0, 3-5 lead over David Goffin when the eighth-seeded Belgian took a medical timeout and then retired with an abductor injury.

"In the first set I started to feel that my abductor was tight and when I wanted to put more energy to restart the match I found straightaway my abductor was burning," Goffin said afterward.

Nadal won the toss, elected to serve and held to start. Winless in five career clay-court meetings vs. the Spaniard, Nishikori opted to trade with Nadal in baseline exchanges at the outset. He paid the price for that decision slapping successive errors to give the opening break.

Tested in the third game, Nadal saved a pair of break points, including curling his first ace out wide on the ad side, to quiet the threat.

The reigning Roland Garros champion flashed vintage Nadal form flicking a slick running pass in the fourth game. That audacious angle helped Nadal break again and left a stressed-out Nishikori spiking his Wilson stick off the clay in frustration.

Nadal wrapped up a clean opening set in a half hour winning 13 of 19 points played on Nishikori's serve, including all five points on second serve, and breaking three times.

Aiming to turn pain to progress, Nishikori earned another break point to start the second set. Though Nadal left a few balls hanging in mid-court, Nishikori didn't exploit any of those chances, eventually sending a forehand long. Nadal held for his seventh straight game. 

Despite that horror-show start, Nishikori knew he had chances to break, saw Nadal wasn't consistently sharp and set out to play with more aggression.

The former US Open finalist was taking the ball earlier as he earned his first break in the third game to go up 2-1.

Staring down double break point in the fifth game, Nadal butchered a poor drop shot that sat up in the service box. Nishikori could have done just about anything he wanted with the ball, but instead inexplicably tried to drop shot right back. Exploiting that gift, Nadal nudged a volley winner scraping through a hold for 2-3 rather than being down 1-4.

Timing Nadal's topspin drives impeccably, the former world No. 4 stepped forward and rapped a forehand return down the line breaking for 5-2. 

Continuing to crack shots into the corners and mix in occasionally down the line drives, Nishikori hitting a running forehand winner forcing a final set after one hour, 22 minutes.

Aggressive court positioning and strong strikes helped the world No. 39 earn triple break point to open the decider. Nadal denied all three, including dialing up a diagonal forehand winner and a surprise serve-and-volley eventually holding.

Tennis Express

The third-ranked Spaniard saved another break point in his next game then turned the screws on his opponent. Wrong-footing Nishikori with a backhand down the line, Nadal swept a swing volley breaking for 3-1.

Despite the relative lack of recent match play, Nadal's toughness, scrambling skills and some timely topspin forehands have carried him through. He saved 11 of 13 break points today and was making his first-serve with more frequency than he did in his Monte-Carlo quarterfinal loss to Andrey Rublev.

Still, the 20-time Grand Slam champion accepts his clay-court game is very much a work in progress during this dirt march to Paris in May. 


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