Down the line: Rule out Rafa at your peril

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Searching for form: Rafael Nadal has been uncharacteristically out of touch on clay.

It was nice to see new faces winning titles on clay this past week with Kei Nishikori emerging a surprise champion in Barcelona and Grigor Dimitrov triumphing in Bucharest – both enjoying maiden success on the red dirt. 

But the Rafael Nadal loyalists are gravely concerned about the world No1’s French Open prospects after he suffered uncharacteristic early exits in both Monte Carlo and Barcelona – two tournaments he has won a combined 16 times. 

These are losses the Spaniard had not experienced in 10 years which makes the widespread panic amongst his fan club understandable, but here are a few reasons why Nadal could still extend his reign in Roland Garros in June:

Nadal is a gladiator at heart. His fighting instincts kick in when he’s down and he tends to bring out his best when his back is against the wall. Like many champions, he’s goal-oriented and right now, his number one goal is to retain his aggressive form to turn around this European clay season. 

In his own words, the key in such circumstances is to “accept the situation and keep fighting”. It’s what he does best. 

He remains the best mover on clay. Nadal’s rivals may say his strongest assets are his mental strength and fighting qualities but on clay, the Mallorcan’s magic comes from his supreme movement. 

If he’s not injured, then Nadal will always have the edge in terms of movement and court coverage on the dirt.

There’s still time. With both Madrid and Rome coming up before Paris, Nadal has a couple of chances to boost his confidence prior to Roland Garros. 

While Madrid is his least successful clay Masters 1000 (he’s only won it twice), and he repeatedly admitted he struggles sometimes with the altitude there, Rome will provide an important opportunity for the 27-year-old. Of course the fact that he’s won it seven times couldn’t hurt. 

Despite the Barcelona loss, he’s improving. Those who watched both of Nadal’s defeats in Monte Carlo to David Ferrer and in Barcelona to Nicolas Almagro can attest to the fact that the world No1 was playing significantly better against the latter.

He was more aggressive and was more effective with his forehand than against Ferrer. It didn’t amount to a win but it showed there’s progress.

If it’s mental, it’s fixable. Nadal concedes that his Australian Open final loss to Stanislas Wawrinka has affected him mentally. It’s not the first time the Spaniard has had his confidence shaken. He lost six consecutive finals to Novak Djokovic in 2011 (and a seventh in 2012) but still managed to take Roland Garros and eventually stopped the bleeding against the Serb in Monaco the following year. 

If he can find a way out of his mental lapse and revisit his tactics against top players with superior backhands, he should be fine in best-of-five matches in Paris.

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Nishikori & Dimitrov seal clay court titles ahead of Roland Garros

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Champion: Nishikori warmed up for the French Open by lifting the Barcelona Open title.

Japan’s Kei Nishikori sealed his fifth career ATP title and first on clay with a 6-2, 6-2 win over Colombian Santiago Giraldo to claim the Barcelona Open.

Nishikori, who was playing for the first time on clay this week under new coach and former French Open champion Michael Chang, becomes the first non-Spaniard to win the event since 2002.

Giraldo was playing in just his second career final on the tour and his inexperience showed as Nishikori dictated from the off and broke three times on his way to taking the first set.

More of the same was to come in the second set as Nishikori raced out to a 5-1 lead before serving out for the championship.

Meanwhile, Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov won his second ATP title of the year when he defeated Lukas Rosol of the Czech Republic 7-6 (7/2), 6-1 in the final of the Bucharest Open.

Ranked 16th in the world going into this week, Dimitrov, who previously had won in Acapulco where he defeated Andy Murray in the semi-finals, struggled against the big-hitting Rosol in the first set.

The Bulgarian took a 2-0 lead in what was the pair’s first meeting, but defending champion Rosol bounced back immediately.

Rosol saved four set points from 15/40 at 5-6, before Dimitrov dominated the tie-break to wrap up the first set in 58 minutes.

He then maintained the momentum by taking a 2-0 lead in the second set and broke Rosol for a third time, to love at 1-3 as he moved on to his 20th match win of 2014.

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Sharapova drives away with hat-trick of Stuttgart titles

Ryland James 28/04/2014
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Racing away: Sharapova won a Porsche as well as the Stuttgart title on Sunday.

Maria Sharapova claimed a hat-trick of Stuttgart titles on Sunday after coming from behind to win a three-set battle royal with Ana Ivanovic in the final.

Having won the 2012 and 2013 titles there, the 27-year-old Sharapova was made to work hard for her 13th consecutive win on Stuttgart’s clay-courts for the 30th final win of her career before over-powering Ivanovic to claim a 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory in just over two hours.

“That was a tough bit of work,” said Sharapova, who has won all four Grand Slam titles. “I have always believed in my chances and the fighting spirit is something that comes from within me.”

This was the first time Sharapova has won a third title at an individual tournament and comes on the back of last year’s shoulder injury. “This time around it’s been extremely tough, that’s why this is so special,” admitted Sharapova.

The Russian collects the winners cheque of €96,774 (Dh491,000) and a brand-new sports car.

“I will need to build a new garage to get all the cars in,” she joked as she collected her third Porsche sports car in as many years from the tournament director.

It is the Russian’s first clay-court tournament in her build-up to the French Open, having lost to Serena Williams in last year’s final. On her part, Ivanovic lauded Sharapova’s performance.

“It was always a close match. It was always a few close balls to decide each game, and it went on the whole match,” she said.

“She’s a great player, and that’s what happens when you play against great players in big matches. You need to use your opportunities. But there’s always next time.”

Having been taken to three sets by the Czech Republic’s Lucie Safarova in her first-round match, Sharapova had swept into the final with straight set wins over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, top-seed Agnieszka Radwanska, then claycourt specialist Sara Errani in the semi-finals.

But Ivanovic, the ninth seed, made the Russian dig deep and the 26-year-old wasted no time asserting herself over Sharapova, racing into a 5-0 lead in the first set before the defending champion responded, but the Serbian held her serve to take the first set.

Ivanovic went 3-1 up in the second but the match’s momentum turned against her when Sharapova broke her, then fought her way back to take the set.

Ivanovic had been chasing her first win over the Russian since the 2007 French Open semi-final, but the Serbian ran out of steam and sixth seed Sharapova showed her experience to win 11 of the last 13 games.

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