Final Preview: Nadal vs. Nishikori

Rafael Nadal and Kei Nishikori have been waiting for this moment for a long time.

On Sunday, the Spaniard and the Japanese will square off in the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters final, with the prestigious tournament crowning its 112th champion. Along the pristine shores of the Mediterranean, a historic title awaits the winner in the Principality.

One year after completing ‘La Decima’ at the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event, Nadal vies for an unprecedented 11th title at one of his clay-court playgrounds. Meanwhile, Nishikori is hoping to complete his quest for a maiden Masters 1000 crown and claim a slice of history of his own, as the first Asian-born player to lift a trophy at the level.

But, records and accolades aside, the final takes on added significance considering the state of both players’ games just a few months ago. With both on the comeback trail from injury, Nadal and Nishikori will take many positives from their stays at the Monte-Carlo Country Club. While a leg ailment had sidelined the top-seeded Spaniard for three months, since retiring from his Australian Open quarter-final, the unseeded Japanese is also bidding to return to top form after struggling with a wrist injury in 2017.

For Nadal, his week in Monte-Carlo was so impressive, even the Spaniard himself was surprised by his ruthless run. After pulling out of three straight tournaments, in Paris and London to conclude 2017 and Melbourne in January, the Manacor native is back with a vengeance.

Nadal extended his clay-court sets won streak to a personal-best 34 in a row following a 6-4, 6-1 rout of Grigor Dimitrov on Saturday. He has lost a mere 16 games in four matches this week, dominating Aljaz Bedene, Karen Khachanov, Dominic Thiem and the fourth-seeded Dimitrov en route to the final. It’s his fewest games dropped in Monte-Carlo since 2010, when he lost 13.

“With Kei, we had a lot of good matches in our career,” said Nadal on Saturday. “It’s going to be a tough match. I know I have to play at my best to keep having real chances of success. It is an important match for me tomorrow. But still, to be in the final already after a period outside of the courts is great news for me. Let’s try to be ready for tomorrow. Let’s try to play a great match and give me another chance.”

One loss and Nadal will concede the top spot in the ATP Rankings to Roger Federer, after returning to the summit earlier this month. But he has showed no intentions of letting his grasp on the No. 1 mantle slip on his preferred surface. And not only is Nadal bidding to lift his 11th trophy in the Principality, he is also looking to return to the summit on the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 titles list. Currently tied with Novak Djokovic with 30 crowns apiece, No. 31 would see him stand alone in first place.

On Sunday, Nadal will look to extend his FedEx ATP Head2Head advantage over Nishikori, which currently stands at 9-2. Despite falling in their most recent meeting, for the bronze medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics, he has not lost in three encounters on clay. Two of those clashes came in finals as well, at the 2014 Mutua Madrid Open and 2016 Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell.

“Tomorrow is a different opponent,” said Nishikori. “He’s been dominating like crazy this week. I know it’s going to be tough. For me, I think I’m improving every match. I feel very confident right now.

“Rafa has been hitting very, very heavy, especially his forehand. His backhand also. He’s been playing very solid this week. I’m sure there is a way to beat him. But, to see him this week, it looks little bit difficult.”

Arriving at this moment is an achievement in itself for Nishikori, who entered the week with just four wins from seven matches on the ATP World Tour this year. But, after reaching his fourth ATP World Tour Masters 1000 final and first in Monte-Carlo, the Japanese star took a massive step in the right direction in his comeback from a wrist injury. A quartet of three-set wins over Tomas Berdych, Andreas Seppi, Marin Cilic and Alexander Zverev will give Nishikori great confidence in his durability going forward.

The Shimane native is eyeing a first Masters 1000 title after falling to Novak Djokovic in both the Miami and Toronto finals in 2016, and suffering a three-set defeat to Nadal in Madrid four years ago. Not only would he become the first from Japan to claim victory at the elite level, but also the first Asian-born player to achieve the feat.

Nishikori is also hoping to continue the trend for first-time Masters 1000 champions. Victory for the 28-year-old would make him the fourth straight first-time winner, following Jack Sock in Paris last year and Juan Martin del Potro and John Isner in Indian Wells and Miami last month. He is also looking to continue the streak for non-European titlists, marking the longest such run in Masters 1000 history.

And Nishikori’s historic bid does not stop there. A win on Sunday would make him the first player to lift trophies on both the ATP Challenger Tour and at the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 level in a single season. He will have his shot at cementing his place in the record books after triumphing at the RBC Tennis Championships of Dallas in February.

The stage is set for another gripping final on the red dirt. With plenty at stake, expect nothing short of a heavyweight fight for the trophy.

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