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Barcelona Open 2019: Rafael Nadal's probable path to the title

ANALYST
Feature
482   //    23 Apr 2019, 14:12 IST

Can Rafael Nadal win at Barcelona this year too?
Can Rafael Nadal win at Barcelona this year too?

0-5 down in the second set after losing the first set 4-6, Rafael Nadal was possibly going through his worst ever nightmare on clay in his semi-final clash against Italian Fabio Fognini at the Monte Carlo Masters. Nadal won two consolation games to escape from the embarrassment of being served a bagel on his beloved clay, in a tournament which he has won on 11 occasions in the past, but the damage was already done. Nadal bowed out unceremoniously in straight sets at the Principality of Monaco.

The World No. 2 himself admitted that it was perhaps his worst performance on clay in 14 long years. He looked unsettled, bamboozled and shell-shocked by Fognini’s incredible winners and majestic shots; the Italian gave the ‘King of Clay’ a taste of his own medicine, dominating the play from behind the baseline.

Nadal’s inability to hold his serve throughout the quarter- and semi-final clashes at Monaco is a worrying sign. He will want to put that behind him as he resumes his claycourt journey on a court that is named after him, the Pista Rafa Nadal, at the Barcelona Open this week.

The crushing defeat at Monte Carlo not only induces doubts in his own mind, but also gives a sense of confidence to all other players, making them believe they can beat Nadal on clay too. But in spite of Nadal's unexpected loss at Monaco, he remains an overwhelming favourite to win his 12th title at his home tournament.

Just like at the Monte Carlo Masters, at Barcelona too Nadal has to maneuver through a tough draw before he can lay his hands on the trophy. Here’s a look at the projected path for Nadal as he looks to win his first title of the year.

Round of 32 vs Leonardo Mayer

In recent times, these two have met at the Australian Open 2018 and the US Open 2017. Nadal has a hundred percent record against the Argentine Leonardo Mayer, who has found it hard to gather any momentum so far this year, so one can expect a straightforward win for the defending champion in his tournament opener.

Round of 16 vs David Ferrer / Lucas Pouille

David Ferrer is nearing the end of his career and Lucas Pouille is always unpredictable. One of them could meet Nadal in the round of 16.

Nadal and Ferrer are close friends, and having played against each other on multiple occasions in the past, Nadal should be more than aware about the threat his compatriot can bring to the table even in the twilight of his career. Having already beaten a top player like Alexander Zverev at this year Miami’s Open, Ferrer would be motivated to make his swansong as memorable as he can.

In the case of Pouille, the unpredictability that surrounds his game makes him a dangerous opponent. The Frenchman certainly has an ‘X-factor’, just like Fabio Fognini, which Nadal should be wary of.

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That said, Nadal would be expected to get the better of either of them and proceed to the quarterfinals.

Quarterfinal vs Stefanos Tsitsipas

Nadal and Tsitsipas during the presentation ceremony after their final at Barcelona Open 2018
Nadal and Tsitsipas during the presentation ceremony after their final at Barcelona Open 2018

There might well be a rematch of this year’s Australian Open semifinal between the master and the apprentice. The Greek Next Gen star who set the stage on fire at the Australian Open earlier this year would be itching to make an impression on clay too.

Tsitsipas’s eclectic game is in stark contrast to Nadal’s grueling baseline barrage. The contrast in styles can add spice to this potential quarter-final match-up.

Tsitsipas, the runner-up at the Barcelona Open last year, could have posed Nadal a bigger threat on other surfaces. But on clay, Nadal will most probably should reign supreme against this Greek young sensation.

Semifinal vs Dominic Thiem

If Dominic Thiem and Nadal clash against each other at the semi-final stage, it would be a mouth-watering contest to say the least. Thiem, who is widely considered the heir to Nadal's claycourt throne, looks to be in a spot of bother himself following his early exit at the Monte Carlo Maters. But he would be motivated to triumph over Nadal for a fourth time on clay in as many seasons if such an opportunity arises at Barcelona.

Fognini might have already defeated Nadal this clay season, but there is no one as strong a contender as Thiem to dethrone Nadal on his beloved red dirt. He has the complete game on clay, a stable head on his shoulders and enough patience to win the long rallies, which are the essential ingredients to become successful on clay.

Nadal can certainly expect a stern test and should be ready to go through some 'suffering', as he usually says, against his potential Austrian opponent before he can make it to the final.

Final vs Fabio Fognini

Nadal congratulates Fognini after their semi-final clash at Monaco last week
Nadal congratulates Fognini after their semi-final clash at Monaco last week

Fognini, who is just a year younger than Nadal, hasn’t done full justice to his potential so far. But that changed to some extent with his Monte Carlo win last week.

Assuming that the talented Italian would remain grounded and humble in spite of that incredible run, one can expect Fognini to be the finalist from the bottom half of the draw. Nadal vs Fognini would be a dream Barcelona Open final that can enthrall and entertain everyone if both play at their optimum level.

The defending champion would be skeptical about his game and unsure about his approach against Fognini. On the other hand, it would again be a case of nothing to lose for Fognini, making him an extremely dangerous opponent.

The Barcelona Open presents Nadal an opportunity to reset his clay campaign and start afresh in his home country. But it remains to be seen how he reacts to his loss at Monte Carlo.

Will the wounds of defeat take over Nadal’s mind, or will he rise handsomely from this setback, considering brushing it off as a minor blip?

Nadal’s performance at the Barcelona Open should be able to answer most of the questions surrounding the home favourite, and a good indication of his immediate fortunes on clay as far as this season is concerned. 

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