Top10Matches_2021-8-wide

Over November 29-December 3 and December 6-10, we'll run down our Top 10 Matches of the 2021 season.

No. 10 | No. 9

Some tennis matches are memorable because they’re played at the highest pitch of quality over a sustained period of time. Others, like Rafael Nadal’s 6-4, 6-7 (6), 7-5 win over Stefanos Tsitsipas in the Barcelona final in April, are memorable for the way their flaws, and the two players’ Herculean efforts to overcome them, serve to highlight the struggle and heighten the drama. Nadal-Tsitsipas was one of those imperfect storms, and it was dramatic enough to make our year-end top 10 list for 2021 in the No. 8 spot.

Over the course of three hours and 38 minutes—this would be the second-longest best-of-three ATP contest of 2021—the tournament’s top two seeds made their share of mistakes, both physical and mental.

Nadal was broken early in each of the first two sets. He double faulted at 6-6 in the second-set tiebreaker. He failed to make passing shots he normally makes, let two match points go by in the second set, and, when he was serving for the title at 6-5 in the third, tightened up and nearly let a 30-0 lead slip. At times, it seemed as if the Rafa of 2021 was trying hard not to revert to his 2015-2016 self, when he would play brilliantly until he had to close out a match, and then fail to find the shot he needed.

At the same time, Tsitsipas was enduring his own struggles. He gave back both of those early service breaks, and was just two of 13 on break points. While he attacked relentlessly and successfully whenever he fell behind, he didn’t keep it up when he was ahead in a game or a set. And when he reached his own match point, at 5-4 in the third, Tsitsipas let Rafa back into a rally that he had well in hand. During that point, one of Nadal’s slice backhands grazed the net cord as it floated over, but it was a Tsitsipas backhand that finally landed in the net.

These hesitations and signs of nerves were understandable from each player.

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Highlights: How Nadal found his way past Tsitsipas

Nadal was trying to win a mind-boggling 12th title in Barcelona, and his first since 2018. He’ll forever be the king of clay, but outside of Roland Garros he hadn’t been as dominant on the surface as he once was; this was only his second win in a run-up event to the French Open since the start of 2019. Rafa, who turned 35 in June, was also trying to beat a player 12 years his junior, one who had worn him down over the course of five set at the Australian Open in February, and one who was in the midst of a major surge on dirt; Tsitsipas had just won his biggest career title, in Monte Carlo, and he would finish the clay-court swing by reaching his first Grand Slam final, at Roland Garros, and nearly winning it. This time, though, Nadal showed no signs of fatigue, and he worked every bit as as diligently and passionately to find a way to win as he had when he was a teenager.

If anything, Tsitsipas was trying to do something even more daunting: Become the first man to beat Nadal in a Barcelona final. In his 11 previous title matches here, Rafa had lost just two sets. For much of Sunday’s final, it looked as if Tsitsipas would succumb in the same way that so many of Rafa’s opponents have in the past here, especially those with one-handed backhands. Tsitsipas came out rifling winners, including two or three from his backhand side. Gradually, as expected, Nadal began to wear Tsitsipas down with his heavy-topspin forehand. But instead of quietly accepting his fate, Tsitsipas escaped the Rafa trap by charging the net, and nearly charged all the way to a win.

“I think I never played a final like this in this tournament, so it means a lot to me against a player like him,” Nadal said. “It’s an important victory for me. I think I have been increasing my level during the whole week and this victory confirms it. That’s important for today.”

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Nadal showed no signs of fatigue, and he worked every bit as as diligently and passionately to find a way to win as he had when he was a teenager.

At the time, Nadal had yet to reach his clay-season peak. He knew he had another month to get there, and he knew better than anyone how to save an extra gear for Paris. This time he wouldn’t find it, though, and he would suffer just his third loss in 108 matches at Roland Garros, to Novak Djokovic.

In retrospect, that loss makes this win more special, because we know that these types won’t continue forever, even for Rafa, even on clay. He seemed to know it, too. When he hoisted Barcelona’s giant silver trophy for a 12th time, Nadal seemed to take special pleasure in hearing the applause from his countrymen wash over him. Once upon a time, he might have taken a moment like that for granted.

This match also felt special because of how Nadal and Tsitsipas pushed each other. For three and a half hours, they made each other get tight, they forced each other to make mistakes, and they inspired each other to fix their flaws and do whatever it took to win. Nadal crossed the finish line first, by a millimeter.