Rafa Nadal keen to prove his class on clay at Barcelona Open

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Rafael Nadal has a return to winning ways on clay in his sights as he targets a ninth title at the Barcelona Open this week. The Spaniard was beaten in straight sets by world No1 Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals of the Monte Carlo Masters on Saturday, but insisted he was pleased by his progress after a poor start to the year following a long injury layoff in the second half of last season.

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“For me, it’s a very positive week. The most positive week of the season, without any doubt,” said Nadal. “If I am able to keep doing that in the next tournament in Barcelona, and I have a tough draw, I will say that I am very well again.”

Nadal is only seeded second despite leapfrogging top seed and defending champion Kei Nishikori to move back to fourth in the world with his run in Monte Carlo. The 28-year-old was beaten for just the second time in his career in Barcelona last season as a shock defeat to compatriot Nicolas Almagro ended a 41-match winning streak stretching back to 2003. 

However, despite an unusually unsteady start to his clay campaign, Nadal still went on to reign once more in Paris by winning a ninth French Open last May. And the king of clay acknowledged that he is approaching the most crucial stretch of his season.

"The most important thing, what’s helping me really, is that I have the right motivation to play tennis, the right motivation to work hard every day, and with the right attitude. That’s why I was able to play better this week than the previous weeks,” added Nadal.

“I have been working hard since I came back, but everything is a process. “Monte Carlo was the first very positive week after my comeback in the beginning of the season.” 

Nadal does though face a tough route to the title with a potential rematch against Almagro in the second round, last 16 meeting against Fabio Fognini, who he lost to recently on clay in Rio de Janeiro, and then a semi-final against David Ferrer. Should the 14-time Grand Slam champion make it through to Sunday’s final, Nishikori could be lying in wait with the Japanese desperate to end a 0-7 career record against Nadal.

“My goal is always to beat Rafa, though he has beaten me seven times already. I think I am getting closer every match, I feel I may have some chance to beat him,” said Nishikori. “He is great player especially on clay. It’s a really tough challenge and hopefully I can do it soon.”

On paper Nishikori has an easier route to the final with the out-of-form Marin Cilic, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Roberto Bautista Agut the other top eight seeds on his side of the draw.

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Djokovic continues streak in Monte Carlo

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Consecutive wins: Novak Djokovic.

Novak Djokovic set another career record on Sunday with his second Monte Carlo title, as the Serb became the first man to win the opening three Masters 1000 events in a season through a 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 defeat of Tomas Berdych.

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The top seed, who lives just a few hundred metres away from the centre court, had to survive a comeback from his Czech rival as well as a 70-minute rain interruption which came as he led by a set and 3-2 on serve in the second.

Djokovic’s victory was his 17th straight win of the season and also marked a fourth straight Masters 1000 title after also winning at Paris Bercy last November.

“It was a tough match, a particular match,” 2013 Monte Carlo winner Djokovic said of a somewhat frustrating win, where he struck 38 unforced errors, lost his first set of the week and converted on only five of 14 break points.

“Tomas played a great match and deserves this trophy as much as I do. It was a good final, but bad luck today.”

Djokovic now owns 52 career titles and 23 at the elite Masters level. He stands 19-2 over Berdych and 30-2 this season.

Berdych missed a chance to move up to a career-best number four in the world.

“What can I say,” said the Czech. “Novak had another excellent week, I tried my best but it was not good enough today.

“I’m missing that one step in my clay game but I’m going to work to raise my game that little bit. I’ll do what I can to make that happen and hope to come back next year and go a step further.”

Djokovic won the opening set comfortably but was unable to come back after the rain break and close it out in straight sets.

Instead, Berdych got the early momentum upon the return and levelled at a set each.

In the third, Djokovic again seized the initiative, going up two breaks only to lose one of them.

Berdych saved a match point, holding for 3-5 with an overhead winner. But Djokovic prevailed a game later as the Czech’s service return sailed just long over the baseline.

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Czechs and Russia look good for Fed Cup final

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Opening victory: Lucie Safarova.

Lucie Safarova and Petra Kvitova gave holders the Czech Republic a 2-0 lead over France in the Fed Cup semi-finals after the opening rubbers yesterday.

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On the hardcourt of the CEZ Arena in the eastern Czech city of Ostrava, world number 13 and Czech number two Safarova took an hour and 58 minutes to beat 29th-ranked Caroline Garcia 4-6, 7-6 (7/1), 6-1.

World number four Kvitova then saw off 58th-ranked Kristina Mladenovic 6-3, 6-4 in an hour and 21 minutes to take the Czechs within a point of the finals.

Today Kvitova faces Garcia before, if necessary, Safarova faces Mladenovic and a final doubles match. In the other semi-final, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova battled back from a set down to defeat Sabine Lisicki as Russia took a comfortable 2-0 lead over Germany.

Svetlana Kuznetsova earlier beat Julia Goerges 6-4, 6-4 at the red clay court of Adler Arena as four-time champions Russia edged closer towards the final.

The 23-year-old Pavlyuchenkova won 4-6, 7-6 (7/4), 6-3 in two hours 28 minutes to record her second win over Lisicki in as many meetings.

“It was a very hard match,” Pavlyuchenkova said. “I feel worn out but I’m really happy to give my team this win today. After winning the second set in the tiebreak I was stoked and it helped me to start the deciding set pretty well.”

Russia, who are without late withdrawal Maria Sharapova, need just a point today as the singles matches reverse.

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