Rafael Nadal continued his excellent run of form at the Barcelona ATP 500 (also known as the Open Sabadell, or in Spanish, as the “Conde de Godó”) with a 6-4, 6-3 win over countryman Nicolás Almagro on Sunday. The Spaniard notched his 8th Barcelona title (pause and think about that. And while you’re at it, remember that the man has won Monte Carlo 8 times, Rome 6 times and the French Open 7 times), and continued his streak of not losing there since 2003 (back then he lost to Alex Corretja in the second round).
The man from Mallorca, who hasn’t lost a set in Barcelona since 2009 (though he didn’t participate in the event in 2010) improved to a 40-1 record on what has to be the closest thing to a hometown tournament for him.
Speaking of impressive records, Nadal is now 10-0 lifetime against Almagro, but don’t let the straightforward scoreline fool you: this match was much closer than it looks.
As I did for the Stuttgart final between Maria Sharapova and Li Na, I logged every Key Point (Game Points, Break Points, Set Points and Match Points) during today’s Barcelona final. Here is what I found:
– 34 Key Points were played during today’s final. Interestingly enough, that’s just one more than in the WTA Stuttgart final, which had the exact same scoreline.
– Rafael Nadal only won 2 more Key Points than Nicolás Almagro. That’s the smallest margin I’ve recorded so far.
– A very impressive 68% of Key Points were won via Point-Ending Shots (Winners, Aces, Service Winners and Forced Errors). That’s a very, very high number for a final.
– Each man was responsible for 4 clean winners on Key Points.
– Of the 10 unforced errors during Key Points, Nicolás Almagro was responsible for 7. Which is never a good thing.
– Nicolás Almagro won 81% of his Key Points on Point-Ending shots, which is the highest number I’ve recorded so far. That tells you two things: 1) Nadal barely donated anything to Almagro’s cause (just 3 unforced errors on Key Points throughout the match) and 2) Almagro had to come up with really good shots to take any of those Key Points. Here’s his breakdown:
– Rafael Nadal won only 56% of his Key Points on Point-Ending Shots. This is not great news for Almagro, since it means that he donated 8 of those 18 Key Points via unforced errors (one was a double-fault on break point at 3-2 in the first set). 4 came in the first set, and 4 came in the second.
I thought this was pretty fascinating:
Notice that the exact same number of Key Points were played on each man’s serve (17). That’s a rather rare symmetry, and it tells you that neither one was able to gain a decisive edge over the other. As I said, this final was closer than one thinks.
As another example of the parity, take a look at this:
4 more Game Points were played on Nadal’s serve than on Almagro’s delivery. Yet there’s this: Nadal created 9 break chances on Almagro’s serve, while Almagro only created 5. Interestingly enough, 6 more total points were played on Almagro’s serve than on Nadal’s (62 to 56).
There’s something to be said about picking your spots on return: Nadal created break chances in 5 different Almagro service games, while Almagro only managed to create break chances in 3 Nadal service games (all in the first set, too).
– This final was very streaky in terms of Key Points won: Nicolás Almagro opened the match by winning the first 5 Key Points (and racing to a 3-0, double-break lead). Nadal responded by winning the next five Key Points, which saw him win four games in a row. Almagro then won the next three Key Points, and Nadal won the next three after that. #Streaky
You could say that the match turned in the ninth game of the first set. By that point, Almagro’s double-break lead had evaporated, but the man from Murcia had managed to hold serve to level the match at 4 games all. Here’s what transpired during the key moments of the next game:
Almagro pegged Nadal back to Deuce after the greatest clay-courter of all time had two game points to go up 5-4. Nicolás then had three break points, two of which were wiped away by great Nadal serves. During this stretch, Almagro recovered the groove he was on at the beginning of the match that led to a two-break lead: he was being very aggressive, and he wasn’t missing. But each time he had a chance to get the break that would allow him to serve for the set, Nadal would find just the right shot to rebuff him.
It didn’t help Almagro’s cause that after Nadal held to go up 5-4, the now 8-time Barcelona champion was on the receiving end of some good fortune. Nadal created a break point that doubled as a set point. And in that 30-40 point, one of Almagro’s shots clipped the letcord and bounced high in the air, giving Nadal plenty of time to zoom in and blast a forehand winner to take the set. That was a bit harsh for Almagro, to say the least.
– Speaking of him, the Houston runner-up won’t be too happy to see this:
Simply put, Almagro donated 5 of the 7 Key Points Nadal won on his own, ATP-Ace-Leading serve via unforced errors (one was a double-fault). That’s never good in a final of this caliber, against an opponent as accomplished as Nadal.
Winners, Forced Errors, and Unforced Errors
– Nicolás Almagro had 4 forehand winners on Key Points, plus two Aces. No pretty backhand winners were found. Almagro split his winners/aces evenly between sets (3 in each).
– 3 of the 4 Almagro winners came on break points (2 on Nadal’s serve and one on his own serve). One of the Aces also came when the Murcia man was down break point.
– Rafael Nadal also avoided the backhand winners on Key Points, served up an ace, and added 3 forehand winners of his own. He did have a gorgeous backhand volley winner at 4-2, 40-15 in the second set.
– Almagro forced 7 errors off Nadal’s racquet. Only one of those was a service winner, oddly enough. Four of those came after Almagro attacked Nadal’s forehand side, a common tactic against the soon to be 27 year-old Spaniard.
– Nadal forced 5 errors off Almagro’s racquet: three of those came when Rafael went after Almagro’s forehand. Two were service winners up the T from the AD court. This won’t make Samuel López (Almagro’s coach) happy: everybody and their mother knows that Nadal loves to go up the T from the AD court. Rafael does mix it up with the lefty slider, but more often than not, it’s that missile up the T that bails Nadal out.
– Nadal only had a single backhand unforced error on a Key Point. That’ll make Toni Nadal very happy: last week in Monte Carlo his nephew finished with 20 backhand unforced errors for the entire match (though I don’t know how many of those were on Key Points).
– Almagro’s unforced errors were almost evenly split between his forehand and his backhand. The former ended up with the slight 4-3 edge.
– Interestingly enough, all four Almagro forehand unforced errors came in different ways: the first was an inside-in forehand attempt. The second, an inside-out forehand attempt. The third, a simple cross-court attempt from the middle of the court. And the last one was a down the line try. #Variety
I wrote above that this match was closer than it looked, but some of the numbers suggest that Nadal wasn’t as threatened as I might have thought. After all, the man who’s yet to lose before a final this year never faced a break point after that pivotal ninth game of the first set.
And even if Nadal had lost that game, was it a sure thing that Almagro would have served out the set? Not really.
At the beginning of the broadcast, Jason Goodall kept saying that it would be interesting to see how Almagro would react to adversity. What would happen if the ATP Ace leader found himself in a hole against his legendary compatriot? We know that Almagro hasn’t exactly excelled against the elite: his lone win versus the current top 5 of the ATP came at the French Open in 2008 against Andy Murray. Hardly a victory heard around the world (and one that is going to be 5 years old very soon). Overall, Almagro’s record against the top five is a ghastly 1-34.
Someone with Almagro’s talent has to find ways to dig deeper against the best in the world. He has the tools to do it. However, as breathtaking as Almagro’s shots are, it doesn’t help that his game has some pretty noticeable weaknesses. Almagro’s return of serve is below par, he finds it hard to get back on points after being pushed back, and his transition game is non-existent. When he’s firing away from the baseline, it seems like opponents have a way of anticipating just what he’s going to do. Even with all that firepower, Almagro becomes predictable. Which is the worst thing you can be when you’re trying to beat the best in the business.
As for Nadal, he found a way back into the first set about as quickly as he went down the two breaks. As he’s always done against Almagro, Nadal found ways to weather the storm and slowly but surely outmaneuver his fiery compatriot. Nadal is quite adept at finding ways to return Almagro’s serve effectively (he limited Almagro to just 62% 1st serve points won, and 45% 2nd serve points won) and be efficient on his own serve (Nadal won 70% of 1st serve points and 50% of 2nd serve points).
Nadal also benefited from Almagro’s gameplan in the first set: Nicolás chose to go for Nadal’s forehand corner, even after Djokovic showed what could be achieved if one is disciplined enough to go after Nadal’s backhand. But even when Almagro changed tactics in the second set and went for that Nadal double-hander, Rafael responded admirably. I think it’s a great sign for the Manacorí that only one of his Key Point unforced errors came on that backhand wing.
Regardless, winning Barcelona after the events of last week in Monte Carlo is exactly what Nadal needed. Like most pros, he’s a confidence player, and winning his beloved Barcelona title will surely be a boost as we head into the Madrid-Rome double header.
Lastly, what an amazing achievement for Nadal to win 8 Monte Carlos and 8 Barcelonas. He can get to 7 Romes in a few weeks, and more importantly, 8 French Opens. It will be a tough road, but even if Nadal were not to achieve those last two milestones, his career is already legendary.
And who doubts that the man from Manacor will be back next year to try and get Monte Carlo number 9 and Barcelona number 9? Not me.