Four months in it’s really been quite an unpredictable season. With Stan Wawrinka taking the Australian, then Novak Djokovic rising up and sweeping the U.S. Masters events followed by Rafael Nadal’s stunning tumble in April. Will May follow suit? The potential is there.
Tomorrow in the Madrid Masters final it’s Nadal against the surprising Kei Nishikori in what would figure to be a no-brainer outcome. But those are often the ones that require the most brains, aren’t they?
Nishikori, though, will need more than his head to beat Rafa, he’ll need the rest of his body. Earlier in a very impressive, tough 7-6(5), 5-7, 6-3 win over David Ferrer the top ranked Japanese battled not just the indefatigable Spaniard but also a bad back.
The 24-year-old of course overcame both for one of his signature wins of his career. And since the start of Miami – remember he beat Roger Federer – he’s won 14 straight matches including the title in Barcelona (10-0 on clay). The run has earned himself a deserving spot in the Top 10 come Monday. And I think he’ll be a regular in that top group for many years.
“It’s a little bit surprise,” said Nishikori. “[Nadal's] the king of the clay, so hopefully I can hang in there and try to play another good match.”
But on Sunday the glory will go to Nadal. After two tough losses in April, Rafa appears to be back on track. He hasn’t dropped a set all week and he really hasn’t been tested after a comfortable 6-4, 6-3 win over Roberta Bautista Agut in his semi.
“Psychologically, in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, whenever I had difficult moments, I was not ready and I was a little bit down,” said Nadal. “Here, I managed to be ready straightaway. For example, in the second set I had a ball to go up 5-0 and he played well and then I committed an error at deuce when it was 4-1. At 4-3, I responded again. I managed to serve well and play a good passing shot and to break again.
“All of those symptoms are symptoms that I am mentally more stable and more confident that things are going to go well. This is great news in order to go out and play tomorrow’s match, but also for what may come in the future.”
So while Nishikori comes into the final a little banged up and perhaps exhausted from his grueling 3-hour semifinal, Nadal should be in perfect form to put on a final show in front of his fans.
Still, I give Nishikori a chance, though a small one. He’s 0-6 against Rafa winning just one single set (lost 14 straight sets) but this is the first time they’ll play with Kei really at the top of his game. Recall he pushed Nadal a bit in Australia, and now he’s playing even better.
And today was a huge win to beat Ferrer on his home turf after losing that crushing second set. I’ve said before, I liken Kei to a young Ferrer just with a little more power while lacking that fitness. He doesn’t have a single overpowering shot, but he moves well, can crack it off both wings going in either direction and plays offensive. Those are good traits to have and they translate on any surface, unfortunately they won’t put a serious scare into a guy like Nadal playing on a claycourt in Spain. At least it shouldn’t.
That said, it’s just been such a crazy year that if Nishikori can somehow get his fragile body to 100% and if he attacks Nadal, gets him off balance off from the first stroke, he’ll be in this. But Rafa’s got to want this so bad. Plus, it’s hard for me to fathom that Nishikori will enter the French leading the tour in clay titles this year.
The pick: Nadal in two
Tennis channel has live coverage of both the men’s final and the women’s which is between Maria Sharapova and Simona Halep (I think Halep could win!).
SUNDAY MADRID SCHEDULE
MANOLO SANTANA start 2:00 pm
ATP –  B Bryan (USA) / M Bryan (USA) vs  D Nestor (CAN) / N Zimonjic (SRB)
WTA –  S Halep (ROU) vs  M Sharapova (RUS)
ATP –  R Nadal (ESP) vs  K Nishikori (JPN)
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