Rafael Nadal maintained his ominous claycourt form by seizing back the Barcelona Open title from Kei Nishikori with a 6-4 7-5 victory, matching Guillermo Vilas’s record title haul on the surface.
A week after reclaiming the Monte Carlo crown, the 29-year-old Spaniard returned to another of his favourite hunting grounds to end Nishikori’s two-year hold on the trophy and take his tally in the Catalan capital to nine.
“It’s a very special week playing in my homeland,” said Nadal. “This is a very important and historic tournament on the calendar.”
Playing with the kind of authority that once made him almost unplayable on European clay, Nadal looked poised for a comfortable victory until Nishikori broke back in the second set to make Nadal dig deep.
He would not be denied, though, sealing victory after two hours when Nishikori slapped a forehand into the net.
Nadal moves into second place in the 2016 point race to the World Tour Finals in London. He earned his first back-to-back titles in successive weeks since Toronto and Cincinnati in August 2013.
Nadal, who will target a 10th French Open title next month, and former Argentine great Vilas have both won 49 claycourt titles and Nadal will be confident of edging ahead when he moves on to Madrid and Rome before Roland Garros.
Nishikori, Asia’s best player, last lost at the event in 2013 when he went down to Spain’s Albert Ramos in the third round.
“It’s been a great three years for me, even if I lost today,” Nishikori said. “I feel very comfortable here. Every year I feel excited to come back to play.”
The victory denied Nishikori the chance to join Nadal and Mats Wilander as the only men to have lifted the trophy at the Real Club de Tenis over three consecutive years.
The match marked the first time since 2008 that the top two seeds played the Barcelona final. Nadal defeated David Ferrer that year.
Spain’s king of clay now stands 9-0 in Barcelona finals and has now won nine titles in three events: Monte Carlo, Roland Garros and Barcelona.