Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal has been back near his best at the start of the clay-court season. Getty Images

Rafael Nadal will have the chance to equal Guillermo Vilas’ record of 49 clay-court titles when taking on on Kei Nishikori in the final of the Barcelona Open on Sunday. Fresh from landing his ninth title in Monte Carlo last week, Nadal will now also be vying for his ninth crown in the Catalan capital after making it through his four matches without dropping a set.

On Saturday, the world No. 5 came through comfortably against German veteran Philipp Kohlschreiber in the semifinals, although even Nadal conceded afterward that it had been far from his best tennis of the tournament.

“It was my worst match of the tournament,” he said. “I did not like my match today. I played better yesterday and the day before yesterday. You can always have a day when you don’t play well. Tomorrow I want to win and I’m very competitive. Today was not my best level.”

That display was an aberration, however, in the midst of wha has been a stirring return to form over the past two weeks. The triumph in Monte Carlo was his first title on the ATP Tour in eight months, and his first Masters 1000 crown in nearly two years.

Before that, his previous victory at one of the ATP Tour’s nine most prestigious events had come on the clay in Madrid, when in the final he got the better of the man he will face off with on Sunday. And Nishikori will have reason to feel aggrieved at that loss, given that he led by a set before suffering an injury that forced him to retire. Certainly Nadal has made it clear he will not be taking the world No.6 lightly.

“Tomorrow I will play against one of the world's best players and it will be complicated,” he added. "I have to play a great match to win the final."

If Nishikori is to win, he will have to improve on a head-to-head record against Nadal that has seen him lose eight of their nine contests. The former U.S. Open finalist will have greater reason for confidence reflecting on his record in Barcelona. Since Nadal’s run of eight titles in nine years came to an end, it has been Nishikori who has benefited, walking away with the trophy for the last two years. A win on Sunday would make him only the third man to win three consecutive titles in Barcelona, joining Mats Wilander, as well as Nadal.

Like Nadal, Nishikori has also made it through to the final without relinquishing a set. After missing out on Monte Carlo, the Japanese star has extended his winning run in Barcelona to 14 matches, overcoming Thiemo de Bakker, Jeremy Chardy, Alexandr Dolgopolov and on Saturday Frenchman Benoit Paire. Nishikori took just 67 minutes to breeze past world No. 22 Paire 6-3 6-2. Despite gaining a win over the 14-time Grand Slam winner in Toronto last year, the challenge from Nadal promises to be much tougher.

“I beat him last year but I already lost to him this year,” Nishikori told the ATP Tour website after his semifinal win. “He’s been playing great again, he's won Monte Carlo last week and I think he's in great shape. I’ll have to play at a great level, but if i can play some good tennis I think I’ll have some chance to win.”

Prediction: Having been mightily impressive up to an including the first set of his quarterfinal win over Fabio Fognini, Nadal has struggled to reach those same heights since. Perhaps the number of matches he has played in the past two weeks, something that he has not been used to of late, is taking a slight toll on Nadal’s body. If he is as errant int he final as he was in the semifinal then Nishikori is equipped to take advantage. However, Nadal has to be favored to up his game once more for the final and hit with a depth and a consistency that will will be too much for Nishikori. Nadal in two tight sets.

Match time: 11:30 a.m. EDT

TV channel: Tennis Channel

Live Stream: Tennis Channel Everywhere, Tennis TV