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 on Sunday, are memorable for the way their flaws, and the two players’ Herculean efforts to overcome them, serve to heighten the drama and highlight the struggle. Nadal-Tsitsipas was one of those imperfect storms, and it’s going to be a tough match to top during this clay season.
Over the course of three hours and 38 minutes—this was the 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 today was going up against his 2015-2016 self, the one who 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 seemed to have well in hand. During that point, one of Nadal’s backhands grazed the net cord as it went over, but it was a Tsitsipas backhand that finally landed in the net.
These hesitations and signs of nerves were understandable from each player.
Nadal was trying to win a mind-boggling 12th title in Barcelona, and his first since 2018. He’s still the king of clay, but outside of Roland Garros he hasn’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 will turn 35 in June, was also trying to beat a player 12 years his junior, one who was coming off his biggest title in Monte Carlo, and who had worn him down over the course of five set at the Australian Open in February. This time, though, Nadal showed no signs of fatigue, and he worked 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 a couple 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.”
Nadal hasn’t reached his clay-season peak yet. He knows he has another month to get there, and he knows better than anyone how to save an extra gear for Paris. But this win felt special because, as he said, he hasn’t played any epic finals like this one at his home tournament. It also felt special because these types of wins won’t happen forever for him, even on clay. And it 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.
Ash Barty seems to be enjoying her round-the-world 2021 adventure, doesn’t she? After staying at home in Australia during the pandemic last year, the world No. 1 has committed to the full tour experience this season. She and her coach, Craig Tyzzer, are living on the road and entering every tournament they can. The effort is paying off. This week, in her first trip to Stuttgart, Barty came away with just the second clay-court title of her career.
That may sound simple—play tournament, win tournament—but Barty earned this one. In her last three matches, against three Top 10 players, Karolina Pliskova, Elina Svitolina, and Aryna Sabalenka, Barty lost the first set each time. Against Pliskova, she was down 3-5 in the third set. Against Svitolina, she had to survive a second-set tiebreaker. And against Sabalenka, she had to withstand an early storm of winners from her more powerful opponent. But Barty stayed patient, trusted her varied and versatile game, and proved to be the steadier, more even-keel presence on court each time.
“This week’s been phenomenal for me,” Barty said after her 3-6, 6-0, 6-3 win over Sabalenka on Sunday. “I’ve certainly felt like I’m taking my tennis to kind of a new level, in a sense of being able to be calm and play with freedom and play without consequence in a way, just going out there and try to bring my best every single point.”
Barty showed how valuable a Plan B can be. In the first set of the final, she was on her heels and at Sabalenka’s mercy. But in the second set, Barty immediately changed the tone of the match by following her returns to the net and taking Sabalenka’s time away. From there, Sabalenka lost her rhythm completely, and was at a loss for how to find it again. So far this year, Sabalenka had shown some signs of improved consistency, but Barty was able to derail her with the title on the line.
“Tennis is a strange sport at times,” Barty said. “Even though you can be a set down, I didn’t feel I was very far off. I had a couple of break points and opportunities myself, you take one or two of those and it’s a completely different ball game.”
With her all-court style and love of doubles—she and Jen Brady won the title in Stuttgart—Barty has always been a throwback player. Now she’s a throwback to the days when the game’s biggest stars were in action virtually every week. It’s nice to see that she’s enjoying her adventure, and that it’s helping her rather than wearing her down. Next week, when Barty faces a full field, including No. 2 Naomi Osaka in Madrid, we’ll find out how much she’s learned.