World number one Rafa Nadal further exerted his clay-court hegemony in the final of the Barcelona Open on Sunday, defeating Davis Cup teammate David Ferrer 6-2, 6-4 to claim his sixth title at the tournament and a second consecutive trophy on the European leg of the ATP Tour. In doing so, Nadal amplified his own legend by becoming the first player in Open-era history to win two separate tournaments on six occasions. On this form, a sixth French Open this season seems almost inevitable.
Ferrer, the beaten finalist in 2008 and 2009 with Nadal on the other side of the net, joked after his loss to the number one in Monte Carlo last week that he would only add to his six clay titles at a tournament where Nadal was not present. Although the two are friends, Ferrer must be despondent in the face of such invincibility. On current form, the world number six- who is fast closing on Robin Söderling in fifth- is the second best clay-courter in the world.
"I've lost three finals, but in my head I feel like I have won a Godó trophy"
It remains to be seen whether Novak Djokovic can translate his hard-court form- the Serb beat Nadal in the finals at Indian Wells and Miami- onto the slower surface. The Madrid Masters could provide an answer to that question, with Nadal and Djokovic to be seeded one and two. However, the Serb has yet to face Ferrer on the slow surface this season and has never beaten the Javea-born specialist on crushed brick.
"It's incredible to come back here to my tournament and my fans after not being able to play last year," Nadal said on court after the match. "I am very, very happy with the win and sorry for David, who is having a fantastic year. But this season, in the Australian Open quarterfinals, he beat me and I had to go home. He's had bad luck in Barcelona, having to play me in three finals, but it's my sixth win here and it's a great joy."
On Saturday, in dismissing Ivan Dodig 6-3, 6-2, Nadal reached 500 Tour level victories at 24, the second-youngest player to do so after Björn Borg. The Spaniard also overtook the majestic Swede, and compatriot Manuel Orantes, with his 31st career title on clay. Unbeaten since the French Open quarterfinals in 2009, when Robin Söderling carved himself a slice of tennis history, Nadal has only lost twice in clay-court finals. In Hamburg in 2007 and Madrid in 2009, Roger Federer was the victor.
In Barcelona, Nadal took his current streak on clay to 33 matches, with a staggering breakdown of 73 sets won from 76 contested since his loss to Söderling.
If the slightest glimmer of hope can be drawn from Nadal's current game, it curiously rests on his serve. In the overall ATP rankings Nadal is tied with Federer in terms of percentage of second-serve points won yet on his first delivery he ranks 19th with 63-percent accuracy. Both Ferrer and Dodig won 50 percent of the points contested on Nadal's second delivery and broke the world number one five times between them.
However, in terms of service return, Nadal's numbers are onerous for his challengers: third and fourth in points won on first and second serve, respectively, and fourth overall in return games won. Against Ferrer and Dodig he racked up 24 breakpoint opportunities and took 12 of them.
Such numbers are not much for Nadal's challengers on clay to hold on to but Ferrer showed that attacking a less-than-potent second serve is possibly the only way to loosen the number one's grip on the prestigious clay court titles by keeping points as short as possible. When a war of attrition is entered into, Nadal will outgun his opponents every time.
"I've lost three finals, but in my head I feel like I have won a Godó [Barcelona trophy]," said Ferrer, echoing the thoughts of many others unlucky enough to meet Nadal in a final on clay.