BARCELONA: Fresh from claiming his first title in nearly two years at the Monte Carlo Masters, Rafael Nadal can tie Guillermo Vilas’s record of 49 clay court titles on home soil at the Barcelona Open this week.
Nadal is a serial winner in the Catalan capital having won the title eight times, but has slumped to shock defeats in each of the past two years to Nicolas Almagro and Fabio Fognini.
“I had a tough season in the last few years, but I’ve had better preparation this year, even with a tough start to the season,” said Nadal after lifting his 28th Masters title.
“I hope it helps my season with confidence for the next few tournaments. I’ve been able to play well for two events in a row — Indian Wells and here — winning against very tough opponents so that is very good for my confidence.”
Enigmatic Italian Fognini has been a thorn in Nadal’s side in the past two years as he has twice defeated the Spaniard on clay and came from two sets down to beat the 14-time Grand Slam champion at the US Open last September.
The two could meet again in the quarter-finals as Nadal has been handed a tricky draw with compatriot David Ferrer also potentially awaiting in the semis.
“I’ve been given a tough route and, moreover, I am coming back from injury,” said Fognini.
“I hope I can have a good tournament and take advantage of some players arriving a little tired after playing in the past few weeks.”
Nadal will start against another fellow Spaniard with the winner of Marcel Granollers and Daniel Munoz de la Navas awaiting him in round two.
Japan’s Kei Nishikori has occupied Nadal’s thrown for the past two years and the world number six is seeded second on the other half of the draw.
Nishikori is making his debut on clay this season having skipped Monte Carlo after reaching the final of the Miami Masters earlier this month.
“I am happy to be back in Barcelona,” said Nishikori.
“I feel good and hope to win my third consecutive title here.”
Nishikori appears to have an easier route to the final than Nadal as he starts against either Dutchman Thiemo de Bakker or Sweden’s Eliam Ymer with the fourth top 10 player in the field Richard Gasquet potentially awaiting in the semi-finals.
World number eight Ferrer starts against Santiago Giraldo or veteran Radek Stepanek, whilst Gasquet will face Malek Jaziri or Hyeon Chung in round two. AFP