Barcelona: Nadal d. Almagro

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Speed bumps weren’t rising on his side of the court, but Nicolas Almagro looked like a man running uphill facing Rafael Nadal in today’s Barcelona final. Almagro’s history against Nadal rivals Sisyphus' record against the rock—he's winless in 10 meetings—so when the fourth seed sprang out to a 3-0 lead with a spirited “Vamos!” you could sense his desire to finally make a match of it against the king of clay.

The sound of fast feet emanating from the opposite side of the net and the sight of Nadal’s upper-cut forehand dotting the court as drizzle began spitting down from the sky all conspired to create an atmosphere of futility in Almagro again as the lead quickly slipped from his grip. No matter how much he leaned into his shots or how hard he hit them trying to make inroads in rallies, Almagro couldn’t gain ground.

Nadal shrugged off a slow start by winning six of the next seven games. Settling in and stretching the court with penetrating combinations, Nadal rolled to a 6-4, 6-3 triumph to capture his record-extending eighth Barcelona title in the last nine years. The seven-time French Open champion collected his 54th career title, while extending his Barcelona winning streak to 39 matches. His lone loss here came to former French Open finalist Alex Corretja when Nadal was a 16-year-old upstart ranked No. 96.

Almagro is not one of the quickest players around the court, but compensates with potent ball striking off both his forehand and backhand and a stinging serve launched by a low ball toss that can be tough to read. The 12th-ranked Spaniard is skilled at opening the court and can drive the ball down the lines off both wings, but it all adds up to misery against Nadal, who can absorb Almagro’s biggest shot without blinking and is adept at crunching counter-strikes on the run.  The quandary Almagro faces against Nadal is he knows he won’t win many of the running rallies so he’s compelled to take greater risk squeezing shots near the lines, but even when he succeeded in opening the court, Nadal often had an answer.

As the rain continued and court conditions became even slower, Nadal began grinding out longer rallies. One of the toughest tasks in tennis is to win when you’re expected to, Nadal’s diligence in accomplishing the small tasks — taking the quick preparation steps to ensure the right space between his body and the ball, putting his returns back in play and patiently probing with crosscourt shots before unleashing his inside-out forehand — have added up to a major winning streak. Dancing around a mid-court ball, he fired an inside-out forehand winner to break serve to seize the first set, 6-4.

The pressure Nadal applied from his persistence began to suffocate Almagro in the second set. He squandered a 40-15 lead, littered a wild forehand down the line wide to face break point before missing a backhand to drop serve and fall behind 1-3 slamming a ball off the court in disgust in a sign of frustration and growing resignation in the man who is now 2-30 lifetime against Top 5 opponents. Almagro won 37 of his 39 service games to reach the final; Nadal broke him four times today.

Nadal, who dropped just four points on serve in the second set, held at 15 to extend the lead to 4-1. Two games later, Nadal softened his hands on a slick backhand drop volley winner for another hold at 15 that advanced the lead to 5-2. A smash down the middle closed the 92-minute show as Nadal raised his 2013 record to 26-2 while earning his ATP-best fourth title of the season before doing some heavy lifting in hoisting the super-sized trophy.

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