Rafael Nadal is arguably playing the best tennis that he has played since the summer/fall of 2013. On Sunday, he won his second straight event in as many weekends with a hard-fought but straight-sets victory over Kei Nishikori in the final of ATP Barcelona. The line score in the match ended at 6-4, 7-5.
Prior to Sunday’s result, Nishikori had won 14 straight matches at the clay-court event, but the Spaniard had Japan’s No. 1 both frustrated and flustered. With brilliant line-clipping forehands, the win for Nadal signifies a return of the King of Clay that should not be understated.
It’s not that Barcelona, which is only on the 500 series, is a tournament with a lot of implications directly. After all, it is not like Monte-Carlo, Madrid, or Rome in terms of how well the tournament is contested.
However, Nadal entered the event following a win in Monte-Carlo last weekend, and that made him the most active player on tour. Usually, when a player is playing a lot of matches in a condensed time period, he suffers some kind of setback – whether a bad loss or an injury. However, Nadal had no such setback and the back-to-back titles on back-to-back weekends are his first since winning both ATP Montreal and ATP Cincinnati back in 2013. I think the elephant in the room right now is that the last time Nadal won two events in two consecutive weekends, he followed suit with a victory in a Grand Slam in very short order (i.e.,. Nadal won the 2013 US Open).
It’s very clear that Rafa is playing better tennis now than he has played in quite some time. With the 2016 French Open looming, there appears to be a major showdown brewing between Nadal and Novak Djokovic. The Serb, who has never won the French Open, defeated Nadal in the quarters of last year’s tournament. However, Nadal 2016 feels a lot different than Nadal 2015, and that means that the Roland Garros title is very much his to lose.
For certain, Nadal’s resume at the French Open is far better than Djokovic’s, in fact, the comparison needs hardly to be made for anyone that has followed the tour for the last decade. However, what should be pointed out is that Djokovic is actually considered a shorter-than-even betting favorite for the French Open while Nadal is the second favorite (i.e.,. William Hill). The odds wouldn’t be like that unless there was a general opinion that Djokovic was more likely to win the tournament.
In my opinion, it’s clearly Nadal that’s the favorite and Djokovic the second. Roland Garros history aside, Nadal has won ten clay-court matches in the last two weeks against players like Nishikori, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Gael Monfils, and Dominic Thiem. Djokovic lost his only match on dirt so far this season to Jiri Vesely, so who really knows where the World No. 1 is at right now.
We’ll get some answers on Djokovic in May, ahead of the French Open. For now, big tournaments on tour are on hiatus with only three minor 250-level events taking place in Istanbul, Munich, and Estoril. Istanbul features Bernard Tomic and Grigor Dimitrov as the top seeds, Munich features David Goffin and Gael Monfils, while Estoril features Gilles Simon and Nick Kyrgios.
The big guns on tour will be active again in early May when the Madrid Masters start. That tournament, Rome, and the completed Monte-Carlo event are the best previews for the French Open. I don’t think Nadal will ever play the tennis that he was known for between the 2008 French Open and the 2009 Australian Open. However, he looks like the man of the moment right now, and I see him carrying his momentum to a 2016 French Open title.