Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal celebrates after beating Kei Nishikori in the final of the Barcelona Open. Getty Images

Rafael Nadal won his 49th clay-court title, equaling the record of Argentine legend Guillermo Vilas, with a 6-4 7-5 victory over Kei Nishikori in the final of the Barcelona Open. Nishikori had won the title in the Catalan capital for the past two years, but came unstuck over a closely fought two hours and five minutes, as Nadal came up with the goods at the big moments to land his ninth title at the event.

As well as adding further milestones to his gloried career, the victory made it 10 wins in a row for Nadal at the start of the European clay-court season. Having come into his favorite period of the calendar on the back of a desperately disappointing 2015 and a poor start to 2016, the 14-time Grand Slam champion has recovered some of his best form. With the French Open now less than a month away, his title in Barcelona to go along with his Masters 1000 crown in Monte Carlo last week gives him huge cause for optimism ahead of his attempt to reclaim his crown at Roland Garros and land an unprecedented 10th title.

Prior to last week in Monte Carlo, Nadal’s last title at one of the prestigious Masters 1000 events had come with a win over Nishikori in Madrid almost two years ago. Yet that triumph was only secured after Nishikori had suffered an injury when a set to the good, and with the Japanese star also having come out on top in Toronto last year, there was plenty of reason to expect a tightly fought duel, despite Nadal’s 8-1 head-to-head edge.

And, between two players who had made it through to the final without dropping a set, that’s exactly what it was. Both men held fairly comfortably in their opening service games, but that was to be an anomaly in a first set where the server was constantly under pressure. Nishikori, the world No. 6, was playing at a high level and puncturing Nadal’s renowned defenses on a number of occasions. While Nadal was playing at a higher level than in his stuttering semifinal win over Philipp Kohlschreiber, there was little to choose between the two players in the final.

The difference came in how they played in the big moments. And there was one statistic in particular that told the story of how Nadal came out on top in a 51-minute first set. While Nadal took both of his two break-point opportunities, Nishikori could only take one of eight. Nadal came up with big serves and monstrous forehands when in trouble and was unrelenting from the back of the court when Nishikori was under pressure on his serve. The set was sealed with Nadal’s second break of the set, blasting past the ball right past Nishikori at the net.

The second set was a similar story with the return again dominating. Nishikori recovered impressively from dropping the first set to break in the opening game of the second. But when Nadal then continued his deadliness on break points to go a break to the good, the set and the match looked to be racing toward its conclusion.

Instead, Nishikori deserved huge credit for fighting back and leveling the second set at 4-4. The former U.S. Open finalist continued to hold on when saving a match point in his next service game. But Nadal was determined not to be dragged into a third set and broke to take the match and drop to his knees in celebration after Nishikori dragged a forehand into the net. Next up for Nadal is a trip to Madrid, when, against the best in the world, he will be aiming to prove he remains the King of Clay.