(Photo credit: REUTERS/Eric Gaillard)
World #1 and defending champion Rafael Nadal once again looks nigh on unstoppable on the clay. He has added fresh records to his already hugely impressive C.V. this year. After claiming ‘la undecima’ in Monte Carlo, he is now just two matches away from repeating the feat in Barcelona. Standing in his way in the last four is David Goffin, who last year reached the final at the O2, but has seen his 2018 season interrupted by a freak eye injury he sustained in Rotterdam. Who will win this one?
Nadal and Goffin have met three times so far in their careers in a head-to-head Nadal leads two matches to one. Interestingly, despite Nadal’s veteran status and Goffin having turned professional nine years ago, all three meetings came last year. The first was at the Monte Carlo Masters in the last four, in a match unfortunately mired somewhat by poor umpiring. Goffin came into the match full of confidence after an impressive victory against Djokovic in the previous round and went up an early break.
But a bad umpiring mistake knocked Goffin’s concentration and Nadal took full advantage to dominate the rest of the match, winning 6-3 6-1. Goffin pushed Nadal harder when they met less than a month later in Madrid in the quarterfinals. But Nadal was again a straight sets winner with Goffin fading after losing a tight first set. The Belgian had his revenge at the ATP Finals when he defeated Nadal 7-6 6-7 6-4 in what proved to be Nadal’s last match of the year.
Path to the semifinals
Nadal, the top seed in Barcelona, received a first round bye and began his campaign for an 11th crown against his fellow Spaniard, Roberto Carballes Baena. Carballes Baena won his first career title earlier this year in Quito on the clay and played well against Nadal, but the world #1 ultimately had enough to progress in straight sets, 6-4 6-4. He then brushed aside the challenge of Spanish veteran, Guillermo Garcia Lopez, losing just four games in a 6-1 6-3 win.
Nadal’s quarterfinal opponent, Martin Klizan, had questioned the Spaniard’s reputation for invincibility ahead of their match. He was given cause to regret his words as Nadal raced away with the first set, winning it without dropping a game. But the Slovakian was very much a factor in the second, holding three set points, but was unable to take any of them. Nadal worked his way back into contention and extended his record to 40 sets won without reply on clay by completing a 6-0 7-5 win.
Goffin, seeded fourth, also received a first round bye. His first match pitted him against Spain’s Marcel Granollers. It was the home hope who made the better start, winning the first set 6-4. But Goffin fought back impressively to win 4-6 7-6 6-2. He was again forced to recover from dropping the first set against Karen Khachanov, but again won through in three 2-6 7-6 6-0. He picked up his third comeback win of the week in the quarterfinals against Roberto Bautista Agut, advancing a 6-7 6-2 6-2 winner.
How do they match up?
Nadal, who was forced to do his fair share of running against the attacking style of Martin Klizan, will probably find himself on the front foot more often against Goffin. That is not to say that the Belgian is without weapons. His backhand is a versatile and solid shot that he is comfortable hitting aggressively both cross court and down the line. He can also inject extra pace into his forehand when he needs to, something he was able to do to good effect in defeating Federer at the O2 last year.
But, the bedrock of his success is an impressive defensive game. There are few players who can make more balls than Goffin. Unfortunately for the world #10, Rafael Nadal might just be one of them. The key to this match will be the contest between Goffin’s backhand and Nadal’s forehand. If Goffin allows Nadal to dominate with that wing early on in the match, his already slim chances of victory will surely diminish even further.
David Goffin is never an easy opponent to face, but the way Nadal is playing right now it’s debatable as to whether anyone could stop him. Perhaps a vintage Wawrinka or Djokovic at his best. But as exceptional a player as Goffin is, and it should not be forgotten that he’s also a member of the top ten, he doesn’t have that sort of performance in him. And even if he did, it might not be enough. Nadal in straight sets.