Who was the biggest winner in men’s tennis last week? If there were a vote, I’d consider casting mine for Guillermo Vilas.

On Sunday in Barcelona, Rafael Nadal won his 49th clay-court title, tying the men’s record that has been held by Vilas since the 1980s. That might sound like bad news for the Argentine; first Nadal broke Willie's seemingly unbreakable win-streak record on dirt, now this. But I’d say it’s really a testament to Vilas’ dogged, somewhat-neglected excellence. After so many years of watching Rafa dominate on dirt, it’s hard to believe that, as of yesterday, there was still someone who had more tournament wins on the surface than he did. (Actually, as of today, there still is someone with more: Chris Evert won 70 titles on dirt; the King of Clay is going to have a hard time catching up to its Queen in that department.)

Nadal’s 6-4, 7-5 win over Kei Nishikori on Sunday gave him nine titles in Barcelona, which matched the ninth title he just won in Monte Carlo. Those are both records as well, but for Nadal the last two weeks have been less about the numbers he’s putting up, and more about the opponents he’s been putting them up against. If the last two years have been about Rafa losing to people he had never lost to before, and who you could never imagine him losing to before, the clay season so far has been about him turning the tables back around on his competition.

In Monte Carlo, Nadal’s third-round win came over Dominic Thiem, a young Austrian who had beaten him two months earlier in Buenos Aires. Next came a win over Stan Wawrinka, the man who had defeated him for for the first time in 11 tries in the 2014 Australian Open final. In the semis, Nadal knocked off Andy Murray; last spring in Madrid, Murray recorded his first win over Rafa on clay.

Something Old, Something New

Something Old, Something New

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In the quarterfinals in Barcelona, Rafa beat an even bigger, and less likely, nemesis in Fabio Fognini; last year the Italian upset him three times. And in the final, Nadal subdued a player in Nishikori who had handled him easily last summer on hard courts in Montreal. That day, it appeared that Kei was poised to pass Rafa for good.

But Sunday was a different day, a different surface, and a different Nadal. As in Monte Carlo, he wasn’t perfect. He fell behind in virtually all of his service games; his second serve sat up for Nishikori to pummel; and just when he seemed to have the match put away at 4-1 in the second set, he let the lead slip.

Yet this was still a vintage Nadal win, one that stands with his best from a decade ago in Barcelona. Rafa hit with confidence and depth, and changed directions with the ball at will. When Nishikori showed in the early going that his backhand was going to be a match for Nadal’s crosscourt forehand, Rafa switched up and went down the line with equal success. That old sense of Nadal skimming, rather than lumbering, across the clay had returned. That old sense of him pushing, rather than being pushed, had returned as well.

“It was a very close match,” Nadal said. “There were a lot of chances for both of us, but I think I have been solid.”

“When you play against players with such a high level, the match is often decided by a few moments. So I feel happy that I handled all these moments well mentally.”

Something Old, Something New

Something Old, Something New

And that was the biggest difference from the Rafa we’ve seen for much of the last two years. During that time, he had developed the disturbing habit of finding a way to lose the points he needed to win most. Over the last two weeks, he’s reversed that pattern.

At 15-all in the final game on Sunday, Nishikori tried the last of many poorly chosen drop shots. It looked for a moment like this one would go for a winner, but Nadal slid diagonally, reached under the ball with a backhand, and lofted up a lob. Nishikori, out of position, tried a backhand, but Rafa was there for the put away volley. The crowd roared, Nadal raised his fist, and Nishikori flailed in vain at the ball. Two points, and two Nishikori errors, later, the match was over.

If that point had happened at such a key moment last year, Rafa might have made the get, but not hit the perfect lob. Or he may have hit the perfect lob, but missed the volley. Or his opponent might have crossed him up with some startling piece of brilliance of his own. Not this time. This time felt like old times.

Enjoy the moment, Willie Vilas. Your record, and your moment back in the spotlight, might not last for long.

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Something Old, Something New

Something Old, Something New

While Nadal was showing us something old on Sunday, Angelique Kerber was doing something new. The German, who at 28 is just a year and a half younger than Rafa, had won a Grand Slam earlier this year in Australia, but she had never defended a title. You can cross that accomplishment off the list after her 6-4, 6-0 win over her countrywoman Laura Siegemund in Stuttgart.

Winning back-to-back titles may not be high on most players’ career goals; simply winning them once is achievement enough. But “playing defense” is an important and difficult part of being a great player. Once you’ve reached the Top 5, or won a major, you grow a target on your back. And each week, to maintain your ranking, you have the nagging pressure of living up to what you did at a tournament the year before. Maybe that’s one reason—aside from adding another Porsche to her car collection—that Kerber was so ecstatic in victory on Sunday. She had done what top players do.

“I was just trying to enjoy the atmosphere,” Kerber said, “the fans and to play here again in the finals. So I was trying to relax a little bit but also in the same moment to be focused. It helped me yesterday, so I was trying and hoping it would help me today as well.”

Something Old, Something New

Something Old, Something New

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By “yesterday,” Kerber meant her impressive three-set win over Petra Kvitova in the semifinals on Saturday. That was a match Kerber could have lost, and the old Kerber might very well have lost. Kvitova had found her range in the second set, and looked to have the stomach for a fight. After beating Garbiñe Muguruza 6-0 in the third set the previous day, it seemed that she had been re-energized by her new coaching relationship with Frantisek Cermak.

Instead, it was Kerber who was energized by the crowd and the moment. In the past, she has responded to bad stretches of play by throwing more games away in a sarcastic fit; this time she refocused and won the last four games. It was a champion’s performance against a quality opponent.

Kerber stumbled on the expectations after her win in Australia, but she appears to have found her feet again. She reached the semifinals in Miami earlier this month, and has started her clay season with a victory. Once a woman who peaked everywhere except the majors, can she, at 28, turn herself into a big-match player, someone who rounds into form for the Slams? With Maria Sharapova's career and Simona Halep's game currently in limbo, Kerber, along with Victoria Azarenka, may be a solid second favorite going into the French Open.

Like Nadal, Angie's making her clay case, and the opening argument has been strong.