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Ricky’s Preview and Pick for the Barcelona ATP Tennis Final : Rafael Nadal vs. Stefanos Tsitsipas

Spanish tennis player Rafa Nadal celebrates after defeating Spanish tennis player Pablo Carreno during the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell – Conde de Godo tournament semifinal match in Barcelona, Spain, 24 April 2021. EPA-EFE/Alejandro Garcia

By Ricky Dimon 

When it comes to one of the current all-time greats facing a “NextGen” opponent, Rafael Nadal vs. Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final of a clay-court tournament is about as good as it gets.

That is what will be in store on Sunday afternoon at the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell, where Nadal and Tsitsipas square off for the ninth time in their careers and second time this season. Tsitsipas pulled off an improbable 3-6, 2-6, 7-6(4), 6-4, 7-5 upset in the Australian Open quarterfinals, but he still trails the head-to-head series 6-2. Nadal has won two of their three clay-court encounters, including a 6-2, 6-1 rout in the final of this same Barcelona tournament in 2018.

Needless to say, three years later a much different kind of contest can be expected. Tsitsipas has established himself as one of the best players in the world at fifth in the rankings, and he is the hottest player on clay right now. The 22-year-old Greek captured his first-ever Masters 1000 title last week in Monte-Carlo and he has extended his streak of sets won to 17 with a flawless run through the Barcelona draw. That includes defeats of Jaume Munar, Alex de Minaur, Felix Auger-Aliassime, and Jannik Sinner.

Greek tennis player Stefanos Tsitsipas celebrates after defeating Italian tennis player Jannik Sinner during the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell – Conde de Godo tournament semifinal match in Barcelona, Spain, 24 April 2021. EPA-EFE/Alejandro Garcia

“It feels great to be back (in the final),” Tsitsipas assured. “I will try to redeem myself from last time…. [Rafa] is someone that I really respect and have always dreamed of beating.”

Nadal has been beatable on clay so far this spring, with Andrey Rublev managing to accomplish the feat in the Monte-Carlo quarterfinals. Obviously nobody has done it this week in Barcelona, but both Ilya Ivashka and Kei Nishikori surprisingly took sets in rounds two and three. The world No. 3 raised his level to defeat Cameron Norrie and Pablo Carreno Busta in straight sets the past two days.

Now 65-4 lifetime in Barcelona, Nadal is one win away from a 12th title.

“I am very happy to be back in a final here at a historic event, a home event, (and) an important one for me,” the Spaniard commented. “I think I did things well today, better than the other days. I have been improving every single day a little bit more.

“Tomorrow will be a very tough one. [Stefanos] is playing probably better than ever–not one set lost in Monte-Carlo and here, so it will be the toughest opponent possible. I need to be ready to increase my level, and let’s see.”

Tsitsipas may be in superior form, but this kind of competition level is much different from what he saw in Monte-Carlo and from what he has seen in Barcelona. That is no knock on Rublev, Auger-Aliassime, or Sinner; that is just the nature of the beast that is Rafael Nadal.

It’s hard to bet against Nadal at this particular tournament even when he is playing poorly, and now that his level is back up to speed you have to like his chances on Sunday.

Pick: Nadal in 3

Ricky contributes to
 10sballs.com and also maintains his own tennis website, The Grandstand. You can follow him on twitter at @Dimonator.