Madrid: Nadal d. Nishikori

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The worst matches of all? Those that leave you with almost nothing to say about the result. That’s the way it was with Rafael Nadal’s 2-6, 6-4, 3-0 win over Kei Nishikori in Madrid today. Rafa won his third title of 2014, his fourth in the Spanish capital, and a record 27th at a Masters event. But it was Nishikori who was the better player for most of this one.

Dominating in all aspects of the game, the newest member of the Top 10 led 6-2, 4-2 before his injured back failed him for good. On the changeover at 4-3, Nishikori had the trainer massage it, but there was nothing to be done. When he walked back out, his service motion was abbreviated; three points later he started to hobble. Nishikori wouldn’t win another game, and retired down 0-3 in the third. Afterward, he pulled out of the coming event in Rome.

Nadal did what he set out to do—win the title. Exactly what this will do for his confidence going forward is hard to say. For a set and a half, Nishikori, looking like a cross between Novak Djokovic and Nikolay Davydenko at their best, ran Nadal ragged with his flat, on-the-rise, ultra-smooth ground-stroke lasers. Kei was inside the baseline; Rafa was well behind it. Kei was hitting with easy pace; Rafa, when he tried to generate it, watched the ball sail on him. The forehand that has been troubling Nadal started to misfire early, and the backhand caught up later. Rafa managed to hit just 11 winners on the day, and Nishikori had no trouble dealing with his serve.

If Rafa had lost, Nishikori would have been the fourth player this year, after Stan Wawrinka, Alexandr Dolgopolov, and Nicolas Almagro, to record his first career win over him. We'll see if the experience of winning, regardless of how that win came about, is enough to make Rafa feel better about his game.

The bright spot for Nadal is that, at least in his own service games, he had begun making inroads in the second set and having some success getting more pace and depth. When he held for 3-4 and the Madrid crowd roared, the stage looked set for a Nadal surge. We’ll never know if it would have come; Nishikori had held him off until then.

As for Kei, his brilliant week, and his first Masters final, came to disappointing ends. But today we saw that Nadal himself might have been correct six years ago when he predicted that Nishikori, now 24, could be destined for the Top 5. For 14 games, Kei looked that good. Injuries have slowed his progress in the past; let’s hope, now that he’s really progressing, that it doesn’t happen to him again.

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