While most top-ranked tennis players headed east to participate in the Dubai Open, Rafael Nadal opted to go the other way. Well Rafa wasn’t exactly alone, since he had the company of some other high-ranked players like; the compatriot world no. 4, David Ferrer, no. 14, Italian Fabio Fognini and two more guys from Spain, the no. 16, Tommy Robredo and no. 17 Nicolas Almagro. They were all at Rio de Janeiro to participate in the inaugural Rio Open, the ATP 500 series tournament.
Rafael Nadal has said that he looked forward to participating in the newest ATP World Tour 500 event because he was enamoured by great support from Brazilian fans the world over. But it seems; one reason why Rafa came to Rio, had to do with an early familiarization on the clay surface, which the tournament provided. It was his first tournament in one month since he suffered a back injury at the Australian Open, leading to an almost limping display in the final against the ultimate champion Stanislas Wawrinka. Rafa is famously regarded as the King of Clay and his 8 victories at Roland Garros are ample testimony to such status. Rio was to provide Rafa with more practice on the surface of his choice. So if he chose to go to Rio, he must have been propelled by a strong desire to make it happen once again at Paris and win his 9th French Open title.
Rafa’s first-round encounter with world no. 85 compatriot Daniel Gimeno-Traver was tricky, despite Daniel’s low ATP ranking. Like most Spaniards, Daniel too, is well-versed with clay surfaces and Rafa knew it. Though, the world no. 1 took the first set easily at 6-3, he was pushed by Daniel in the second, before winning the set finally 7-5. Having overcome the first hurdle, Rafa didn’t have much problem in the next two matches, as he easily beat another Spanish player Albert Montanes in the second round and Brazilian Joao Sousa in the third. Put together, Rafa dropped a total of 4 games in these two matches.
But the semifinal against another compatriot Pablo Andujar was a big test of nerves for Rafael Nadal. Andujar came with all guns blazing and hit everything back to Rafa with great accuracy. In the first set, Andujar dominated the game as Nadal continued to come to grips with his opponent. It was an easy first set win for Andujar at 6-2. But Rafa is made of sterner stuff, which he showed in the second set as he turned the tables on Andujar to win the set 6-3. The battle for the match began in the final set. The fierce fight between the two Spaniards took the set to the tie-breaker. Even the tie-break was hotly contested and both players had match points on two occasions. But Rafa, who is known to pull off matches from more impossible situations, prevailed finally to win 2-6, 6-3, 7-6. By all means, the semifinal turned out to be the match-of-the-tournament, while the final was yet to be played. In the final against Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgopolov too Rafa was stretched in the second set. Knowing that Dolgopolov had upset David Ferrer in the other semifinal, Rafa refrained from committing too many unforced errors. Also his mental toughness proved too much for Dolgopolov in the end, as he took the match 6-3, 7-6.
By winning the Rio Open, Rafael Nadal has added another title against his name. More importantly for him, it was his 43rd title on the clay out of a total of 62 career titles. Rafa will likely go to Indian Wells next to defend his title at the BNP Paribas Open Masters, which begins on March 6. From there his likely destination could be Miami, where the Sony Open gets underway on March 17. This title has eluded him, although he had reached the finals on three occasions.