29 April, 2012

BLT En Espana: Barcelona Final Preview

All the reasonable prognosticators had it playing out something like this, Rafael Nadal hurtling his way through the field to the Barcelona Open final.  The last six times the Spaniard has laced up the Nikes at the Real Club de Tenis, he's won the trophy.  Yesterday, he took out the most recent "other" champion, 2010 winner Fernando Verdasco 6-0, 6-4.  In doing so, Nadal set up a final versus World No. 6 David Ferrer, a 7-6 (2), 6-4 winner over Canadian prospect Milos Raonic in a matchup closer than the score indicates, but one that showed Raonic doesn't seem to be quite ready to join the tour elite just yet.  How will this final play out?  Here's the BLT take:
It's obvious that this is a matchupin which familiarity plays a role, both being Spaniards and Davis Cup teammates, these guys know each other's games.  More than that, they've faced off 17 times in ATP tour level matches.  Ferrer won the first time they played, at the Stuttgart tourney in 2004. If you recall, that was the year Nadal missed what was expected to be his first Roland Garros with a career-threatening foot injury.  In total, Nadal has amassed a 13-4 career record versus Ferrer only losing once since 2007, in an injury hampered performance in the 2011 Australian Open quarterfinals.  In other words, don't call it a rivalry...yet.

So, what's Ferrer path to victory?  Well, it's using one thing he has in spades, consistency.  Nadal has played well this week in fits and starts, but he's also been a touch mercurial.  He'll play a few games lights out, then it's as if his mind and shots go elsewhere.  Each time, he's snapped awake and clinched victory, but he hasn't faced Ferrer.  Witness David's last two wins, the three set slog over Feliciano Lopez, who played great tennis for a set and three quarters before losing the plot and going off the rails at the end of the second set.  Then yesterday, Milos Raonic gave Ferrer enough for many to buckle, take their sticks and say "too good."  Huge serves and deathblow forehands flew off the Canadian's racquet, but Ferrer withstood it all.  When Maple Leaf Milos got a bit tight, there was Ferrer.  Consequently, when the winner's interview was held, there was Ferrer, Raonic having escaped up the stairs and out of sight no doubt ruing the missed opportunity.  Nadal giving Ferrer two break points when he's serving for the match like he did yesterday against Verdasco would be a slow boat to disaster against Ferrer.

Still, we're realists, and Nadal, on paper, wins this match. To guarantee it, he has to keep his level high from start to finish, he can't waver.  Keep in mind, Ferrer will be arguably the best opponent Nadal has faced on clay (given Djokovic's mental fatigue in Monte Carlo).  If Nadal can keep himself focused on the proceedings at hand, this will be an unprecedented seventh title in eight years on the Barcelona clay.  If he loosens his grip however, David Ferrer's fourth Barca final versus Nadal (and what awful luck is that) could wind up being the charm.

Prediction: Nadal in two tight sets

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