Rafael Nadal insists he can still improve on clay despite overcoming Stefanos Tsitsipas in a breathless Barcelona Open final on Sunday. The Spaniard extended his record as the ATP 500 event’s most successful player of all time with a 12th career triumph in his homeland.
Tsitsipas pushed Nadal, who will return to world No 2 thanks to his victory, all the way but the 20-time Grand Slam champion came out on top after surviving a championship point in the third set.
The Greek world No 5 himself saved two match points in the second before winning a tiebreak to force Nadal into a three-set final at this tournament for the first time since 2008.
Nadal eventually triumphed 6-4, 6-7 (6-8), 7-5 after three hours and 38 minutes as the ‘King of Clay’ claimed his 61st title on his favoured surface and the 87th of his career.
It is his first in 2021 and the 34-year-old now looks to add to his haul at the Madrid Open and the Italian Open, having fallen to Andrey Rublev in Monte Carlo, where Tsitsipas was ultimately victorious.
Yet despite overcoming the in-form 22-year-old at Pista Rafa Nadal, the 12-time Barcelona Open winner insists he can get better on the red stuff.
Nadal is building himself up to attack a potential 14th French Open title next month with world No 1 Novak Djokovic and long-time rival Roger Federer both seeking to stop him becoming the first male player ever to 21 Slams when the season’s second major commences in Paris in late May.
Nadal is utterly dominant at Roland Garros having won the Slam every year since 2017 and 13 times overall and has warned Djokovic and Federer he plans to use his victory in Barcelona as a springboard as he nears a return to his favourite court.
“It’s important for me of course, it’s important for my confidence. The title itself is an important title,” he said.
“It’s another important title in my career. It’s one of the best 500s of the history of our sport, the big tradition in Barcelona, it’s great.
“I think I have been able to play better and better during the whole week in every single match. Today was a little bit better than yesterday.
“And I think I have room to keep improving. It was not perfect. I really believe I can play better than what I’m doing on clay.
“I really hope that the victory today is going to help me to raise the level to fight for the next couple of events I’m going to play.”
Nadal added: “For me, the simple fact of being able to play in Barcelona after last year’s tournament wasn’t held means a lot to me.
“After almost a year of not being able to experience playing in front of a crowd, these are incredible feelings.
“I really appreciate the love and support you all have shown me throughout my career. Playing in my club and in front of fans means a lot.”
By beating Tsitsipas, Nadal maintained his 100 per cent record in Barcelona Open finals having only ever dropped one set in his previous 11 showdowns.
He got revenge on his younger opponent having lost in the Australian Open quarter-finals to the Greek despite being two sets up in Melbourne.
Nadal continued: “I think I never played a final like this in this tournament, so it means a lot to me against a player like him, [after what] he achieved in Monte-Carlo and [that he reached] the final here without losing a set.
“It is 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.
“To have the trophy with me here at home means a lot, but at the same time for the future.
“It’s about accepting the challenge. It is about being humble enough to accept that sometimes you are not playing that well and you need to fight for it and you need to try to find solutions every day. That’s what I did.”
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Djokovic meanwhile suffered disappointment at the Serbia Open over the same weekend. Matteo Berrettini beat Aslan Karatsev in the Belgrade clay-court final on Sunday.
Karatsev had beaten Djokovic 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 (7-0) in the semi-finals on Saturday after which the world No 1, an 18-time Grand Slam winner who was victorious at the Australian Open in February, admitted: “I can’t be upset with him if he beat me.
“I have to be upset with myself and question why I lost the match. Whoever beats me deserves the credit and I gave him that.
“From my side, I played on quite a low level, in my opinion. [I had] some flashes of good quality tennis. I was fighting. That is a positive.
“I was really trying all the way [and] the crowd was great. They carried me and tried to lift me up, all the way to the end. Because of them, I think I won the second set.
“Unfortunately in the third, he was just the better player in the decisive moments. I had my chances, but that is sport.”
Djokovic and Nadal will both play in Madrid, with the tournament getting underway May 2, but Federer will be absent at the Masters 1000 event, and the Swiss icon will also skip Rome.