As he moves straight into the heart of the clay court season, the sport's dominant performer on the dirt is beginning to look more and more like himself. Rafael Nadal commenced the 2017 campaign on his favorite surface by capturing a tenth title at the Masters 1000 event in Monte Carlo, a phenomenal feat even for a man who has grown accustomed to setting unimaginably high standards. Yesterday, the surging Spaniard claimed another significant crown, taking the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell, also for the tenth time. Across these last two weeks, Nadal elevated his game considerably, recovered much of his self conviction, and played the game at a level he has not reached for four years. He has now won two tournaments in a row, conceding only one set in ten matches, conveying unequivocally to his rivals that he is peaking at the best possible time.
In the Barcelona final, Nadal confronted the formidable Dominic Thiem, a versatile powerhouse from the backcourt who has the artillery to threaten anyone he meets on the clay. A semifinalist at Roland Garros in 2016, Thiem is a durable competitor who rallied gallantly from match point down to oust Nadal a year ago on clay in the semifinals of Buenos Aires. The Spaniard fully understood that Thiem would test him in ways that no one else had during this clay court circuit. The 23-year-old Austrian did just that in a hard fought first set, but Nadal was unshakable when it counted. Ultimately, he marched to a 6-4, 6-1 triumph, collecting a 51st career clay court championship in the process, winning a 71st ATP World Tour title overall.
Nadal started this confrontation with a shade of apprehension, understandably so since he had not played the No. 4 seed since Monte Carlo in 2016. Nadal was victorious on that occasion, but he expected a full throttled battle this time, and all through the first set that is exactly what he got. The tennis during that stretch of the contest from both competitors was nothing less than first rate. Thiem was driving the ball off both sides at high trajectories, trying to keep Nadal pinned behind the baseline, looking to prevent the crowd favorite from stepping into the court and taking control of rallies.
For his part, Nadal was ceding no ground. He was taking his backhand early, hitting his forehand heavily, and giving almost nothing away. Moreover, both men served purposefully. The Spaniard mixed his delivery up beautifully in the deuce court, going out wide to the forehand systematically to keep Thiem off guard, going down the T with enormous accuracy to set up crackling forehands. In the ad court, Nadal found regular success going into the body and wide to the backhand. Thiem went wide to Nadal's backhand cagily in the deuce court but threw in some excellent and timely serves down the T on that side as well. In the ad court, Thiem used the heavy kicker wide to open up the court effectively. Both players knew exactly what they wanted to do in this encounter; it all came down to sound execution and sustained implementation.
Nadal was under fire immediately in the opening game. Ahead 30-15, he was coaxed into a netted backhand by a deep, heavy topspin forehand from the Austrian. Thiem's return at 30-30 provoked a miss-hit backhand from Nadal, and so, right off the bat, the No. 3 seed was down break point. He saved it stylishly, serving wide to his opponent's forehand in the deuce court, approaching forcefully off the forehand, making an elegant backhand drop volley winner. On his second game point, Nadal held on as Thiem's crosscourt backhand landed inches long. That, of course, was a critical hold for the Spaniard, who had lost his serve only twice in four previous matches. Thiem answered with an emphatic love hold of his own to knot the set at 1-1.
The 30-year-old Spaniard moved to 2-1 at the cost of only one point, pouring in four out of five first serves in that efficient game. Thiem served precariously at 0-30 in the next game, and Nadal was set up nicely for an aggressive crosscourt backhand that would have put him in an advantageous position to reach triple match point. But he drove that shot into the net. Thiem was emboldened by that Nadal mistake. He released a scorching forehand inside out winner, an ace out wide in the deuce court, and another sizzling forehand that was unanswerable by Nadal. It was 2-2.
Nadal held his serve for 3-2 at 15, but not before losing a dandy of a point at 15-0. Nadal had drawn Thiem in with a forehand drop volley, and the Austrian had no alternative but to lob. Nadal retreated for an overhead, which he hit essentially right at Thiem down the middle. Thiem produced an extraordinary backhand reflex volley crosscourt. Nadal angled a forehand crosscourt. Thiem handled that with a textbook backhand crosscourt volley, coaxing a forehand error from Nadal.
That startling turnabout might have left a good many men rattled and disconcerted, but not the redoubtable Nadal. He promptly put away an overhead unhesitatingly for 30-15 and swiftly collected the next two points to hold his serve. Thiem was pressed persistently by Nadal in a four deuce sixth game. Twice the Spaniard advanced to break point, but Thiem dealt with those challenging moments admirably. He saved one break point with a thundering forehand inside in winner set up by a wide serve. The formula was similar on the second break point as another big kicker from Thiem pushed Nadal well off the court and allowed the Austrian to drive another winning forehand into the clear. He held on gamely for 3-3.
The level of play was remarkable on both sides of the net. Now Thiem vigorously pursued a service break, reaching 30-30 in the seventh game. But Nadal was the beneficiary of a bad bounce on a body serve that turned into an accidental ace as Thiem swung and missed. When Thiem was off the mark with an inside out forehand on the following point, Nadal took a 4-3 lead. Yet Thiem seemed undismayed, holding at 15 for 4-4 with an ace. The Spaniard held at love for 5-4, playing the 40-0 point beautifully, chasing down a drop shot, sending a backhand crosscourt. Thiem directed a forehand pass crosscourt and kept it reasonably low, but Nadal was poised for a backhand drop volley winner.
Now Thiem was serving to stay in the set. He commenced the tenth game confidently, acing Nadal down the T for 15-0. After a loose backhand error from the Austrian, Thiem went to 30-15, but his inside out forehand landed wide. Thiem cast that mistake aside, approaching with conviction, forcing Nadal into an errant backhand passing shot for 40-30. Yet the unflappable Spaniard kept his mind on the moment at hand, defending skillfully before shifting onto offense, angling a backhand crosscourt that was too much for Thiem to handle. That made it deuce.
Sensing his opportunity, Nadal pounced. He rolled a backhand return with good depth down the line, drawing a backhand down the line error from his adversary. With that judicious move, Nadal had arrived at set point, and he did not waste it. His forehand crosscourt return was not deep but it was hit with authority. Thiem erred, netting a backhand down the line. Set to Nadal, 6-4.
The Spaniard was relieved and exhilarated, delighted to be up a set after facing such stern opposition, yet realizing that he had to remain sharply focussed. On his way to 30-30 in the opening game of the second set, Nadal missed a pair of down the line shots, one off each side. But he met that moment boldly, angling a penetrating backhand crosscourt to force Thiem to miss a forehand down the line on the run. Thiem then missed flagrantly off the forehand: 1-0 Nadal.
Thiem found himself down 15-40 in the second game but he unleashed a winning forehand down the line and then used a short, low backhand slice to draw Nadal in and set up a scintillating backhand pass. He was back to deuce. Nadal garnered a third break point opportunity, but that one got away as he netted a backhand down the line drop shot. An ace and an overhead winner carried Thiem to 1-1.
Nadal and Thiem were locked at 30-30 in the third game but the Spaniard's defense was stellar on that point. Thiem eventually pounded a forehand long. At 40-30, Nadal's wide ad court serve set up an unstoppable forehand down the line. It was 2-1 for the Spaniard. Now he went to work assiduously to gain the break. Thiem led 40-30 in the fourth game, but once more Nadal was unyielding. Thiem missed a forehand inside in wide after pulling Nadal off the court again with his trademark kicker. Then Nadal hustled his way to break point, catching up to a drop volley from Thiem, lobbing intelligently down the line off the backhand, drawing an error from Thiem on a tricky high backhand volley. On break point, Nadal was letter perfect, displaying exemplary footwork, driving an inside out forehand for a winner. He had advanced to 3-1, and the prodigious left-hander was not looking back.
The Spaniard extended his lead to 4-1 by holding at 15, and by that juncture the Austrian was essentially spent, not so much physically as emotionally. Nadal broke the Austrian at love for 5-1 on four consecutive unforced errors off the forehand from the Austrian. He held at 30 to close out an uplifting 6-4, 6-1 victory, capturing 15 of the last 18 points in the showdown.
Now Nadal has a week off before heading to Madrid and Rome for the last two Masters 1000 tournaments leading up to Roland Garros, where he will be seeking a tenth crown. His goal in that stretch will be to make sure he can pass Federer in the Emirates ATP Rankings and thus be certain to land among the top four seeds at the French Open. A year ago, Nadal lost to Murray in the semifinals of Madrid and was beaten in a blockbuster match by Djokovic 7-5, 7-6 in the quarterfinals of Rome. I am convinced Nadal will achieve better results in the two events combined this time around, and would be surprised if he did not win at least one of those important events. And then he would not only be seeded in the top four, but would also be the clear favorite for Roland Garros.
Murray, meanwhile, suffered another stinging loss in Barcelona. Having been beaten by Albert Ramos-Vilonas in a round of 16 clash at Monte Carlo despite a 4-0 final set lead, the world No. 1 took a wildcard into Barcelona. He managed to squeeze past Ramos-Vilonas in the quarterfinals after the Spaniard served for the match at 5-4 in the final set. The left-hander succumbed to nerves in that critical game, making three glaring unforced errors by steering balls long that he should easily have kept in play.
Murray escaped in a third set tie-break to set up a semifinal appointment with Thiem. The Austrian crushed the top seed in the first set, breaking serve three times. Murray salvaged the second set with some good fortune and took a 2-0 final set lead before Thiem swept four games in a row. Murray climbed back to 4-4 but, serving to stay in the match at 4-5, Murray faltered. He led 30-15 but Thiem released an inside out forehand winner. Murray followed with a forehand unprovoked mistake for 30-40, and then Thiem's forehand topspin lob down the line over Murray was too good. Thiem was victorious 6-2, 3-6, 6-4.
Murray was apparently hindered again by his ailing elbow, as was the case in Monte Carlo. He simply could not serve with enough velocity. The rest of his game does not seem to be far below par; it is largely an issue with a diminishment of serving speed. Djokovic will return in Madrid. A year ago, he defeated Murray in the final of Madrid and that result was reversed when the two men met in the title round contest at Rome.
Both Murray and Djokovic will come into those tournaments this year with lingering doubts, wounded psyches and deep concerns. Nadal is another story altogether. The tennis he played the last two weeks was of a lofty standard he had not reached in an awfully long time, probably since the summer of 2013. He has more weight and depth on his forehand. His backhand is often flatter and surely better than ever. His serve is extraordinarily accurate and more versatile than ever before. He is a man who is developing a renewed view of himself and his capabilities that is reminiscent of who he once was.
This is not to say that Nadal expects to celebrate success of the kind he had in his vintage seasons of 2008, 2010 and 2013, when he won a combined total of seven majors and a singles Olympic gold medal as well. But he is reminding himself and all of us that the rekindling of a champion's spirit and self awareness is a goal well worth pursuing. His level of play in winning Monte Carlo and Barcelona back to back in 2017 was considerably higher in my estimation than how he performed a year ago in securing those same two championships. Over the next six weeks, if he can remain injury free and keep plowing ahead, if he can deal with the higher ranked rivals he has not met yet during this clay court season, if he can build on the platform of his recent triumphs, it is entirely possible that Rafael Nadal's reemergence and success will be the single most important story in the world of tennis.