When the main show court of Spain’s oldest tennis club is named after a man who is still among the best players in the world, it makes the hole left by his absence all the more glaring.
But this year, Pista Rafa Nadal, the showpiece court at the Real Club de Tenis Barcelona, will not host world No4 and the 12-time and defending champion, Rafael Nadal, as the Spaniard continued to rehab the cracked rib he picked up during his final run at Indian Wells.
Who, then, would step up and take the title in the absence of a champion who has put together a 66-4 record in Barcelona? Well the competition was fierce, despite the absence of world No1 Novak Djokovic, who was topping the draw at his home tournament in Belgrade this week.
And the man who denied Nadal in 2019, Dominic Thiem, would also not pose a threat. The Austrian who has been absent from the tour since last June with a wrist injury, returned this week, but also opted to play in Belgrade, and lost, a gutsy three-setter, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, against John Millman in the first round—a promising start after so long away.
Another notable loss came in the shape of Barcelona’s 2004 champion, veteran Spaniard Tommy Robredo, as he marked his retirement at the tournament where he had won his first main-tour match 23 years ago. He went on to reach world No5 and win 12 titles, but with an opening-round loss to qualifier Bernabe Zapata Miralles, he bid farewell for good.
Not that Robredo was a contender for this year’s title: That was down to a slew of quality seeds in the draw.
At the bottom, seeded No2, was world No7 Casper Ruud, fresh from reaching his first Masters final in Miami. Even so, the Norwegian’s strongest surface through most of his early career had been clay, and he swept back-to-back titles in Bastad, Gstaad and Kitzbuhel last July. He had also reached the semis of all three clay Masters: Monte-Carlo, Madrid and Rome, and collected his seventh career title on the clay of Buenos Aires this year.
Ruud was scheduled to fave another strong contender, the No6 seed Diego Schwartzman, in the semis. The Argentine, already a runner-up in two clay events this year, came within a hair’s breadth of beating the defending champion in the Monte-Carlo Masters last week, leading Stefanos Tsitsipas 4-0 in third set of their quarter-final last Friday.
In the event, though, the young Greek star made a stunning comeback, and having survived the test, cruised on to take his second consecutive title.
He came to Barcelona, then, as the top seed, and arguably favourite to ‘do a Nadal’ and win Monte-Carlo and Barcelona back-to-back. After all, he had twice been a runner-up, losing out to Nadal in both 2018 and 2021. He was also French Open runner-up last year, eventually losing from two sets to love up against Djokovic.
The top seed would open against Ilya Ivashka, who he beat in Rotterdam in February, and could face Grigor Dimitrov in the third round after the Bulgarian made a fine run to the semis in Monte-Carlo last week.
However, another player hoping to make it all the way to the title match was scheduled to meet Tsitsipas in the quarters, 18-year-old Carlos Alcaraz, one of the stand-out performers of the season so far.
The teenager, the latest in a string of outstanding Spanish players, had won his first ATP500 title in Rio de Janeiro and went on to win the Miami Masters and break into the top 20 for the first time. Now up to No11, and with an 18-3 record for the year, he would try to win his first Barcelona match against Soonwoo Kwon.
With the second-round line-up nearing its completion on an overcast Tuesday in Barcelona, two Britons also took to court to try and earn a place in the third round. In the bottom half, No12 seed Dan Evans had picked up a very tricky draw that would bring Schwartzman in the third round if he could beat one of the rising stars of the last year, the charismatic Italian Lorenzo Musetti.
The 20-year-old, a former junior No1, made the fourth round at Roland Garros last year and arrived in Barcelona after a strong run in Monte-Carlo, where he beat Felix Auger-Aliassime. He also beat Evans in Cagliari last season, in a final-set tie-break.
In this rare battle between two single-handers, Musetti got off on the front foot again, breaking Evans early, and he held onto his advantage to serve out the first set, 6-4. He then broke in the first game of the second set, but a couple of loose errors opened the door for Evans to break back, and the Briton grew in confidence, using the angles, forcing more errors.
Now into his bustling stride, Evans broke for 4-2, roaring himself on, but serving for the set, a string of errors brought three break points for the Italian, and Musetti converted the third. They headed to a tie-break, and it was a thriller, as advantage changed hands, and each went for their shots.
Evans got the first set point, 6-5, on his own serve, and then another, but Musetti resisted, worked match point, and they levelled at 8-8. But at the second time of asking the Italian converted, 7-6(8), to set an unenviable showdown with Schwartzman.
In the top half, it was one of the newest members of the top 10, Cameron Norrie, seeded here at No4, which meant he was on course for a semi against Tsitsipas.
The Briton’s biggest successes had come on hard courts, and his surging 2021 season saw victory at the Indian Wells Masters. This season, he had already reached the final of Acapulco after winning Delray Beach.
However, during that hot 2021 season, Norrie had picked up plenty of points through the clay swing, too, and that meant he had a lot to defend. In Barcelona, he made the quarters—losing to Nadal—and then reached the finals in Estoril and Lyon.
First up, he took on qualifier Egor Gerasimov, who pressed the Briton’s serve hard in the second game. Norrie saved four break points, but finally held after a 12-minute game. Come the sixth game, the Belarusian pounded the forehand of Norrie again, and this time got the breakthrough to lead, 4-2. It did not last long, as the Briton responded, upped the aggression, and broke straight back.
It looked destined for a tie-break, but Gerasimov pressured the Norrie serve again at 6-5 up, and made no mistake on set-point with a backhand winner, 7-5, after more than an hour on court.
Then Norrie began to exploit the Gerasimov serve to break in the third game, looking far more comfortable with more penetration on his leftie forehand. He went on to serve it out, 6-4, with just four errors for the set.
An early exchange of breaks in the decider took the battle past the two-and-a-half hour mark, but the Gerasimov serve let him down, perhaps through fatigue, and Norrie broke to serve for the match. He made no mistake, taking it 6-4.
Norrie will next face either Marton Fucsovics or No15 seed Federico Delbonis.
Source: Sport Review