World #1 and ten-time champion in Barcelona, Rafael Nadal, will look to keep his unbeaten run on the clay going against his compatriot Guillermo Garcia Lopez. Nadal, who has won his last 38 sets on a clay court in a row, a run that dates back to the start of last year’s French Open, has looked almost unbeatable so far this year on the red clay. Garcia Lopez, however, is a fine clay courter himself, and will surely be looking to give Nadal a real challenge. Who will come out on top?
Nadal and Garcia Lopez have met five times on Tour, and six times overall. Their first meeting came 16 years ago in 2002 in the final of a Futures event in Barcelona. Nadal won that match, contested on a hard court, in straight sets 6-3 7-6. He was similarly comfortable in their first Tour-level meetings. In 2005 Nadal won indoors in Valencia in the round of 16, 6-1 6-4, before defeating Garcia Lopez again in straight sets three years later in the Chennai Open quarterfinals.
Garcia Lopez got his revenge in 2010, picking up his first, and so far only, victory against Nadal in the semifinals in Thailand. The 34-year-old recovered from dropping the first set to win 2-6 7-6 6-3 and went on to defeat Jarkko Niemenen in the final. Nadal, however, got back to winning ways in the head-to-head a year later in Shanghai, winning 6-3 6-2. He was also victorious in straight sets in their only previous clay court meeting, which came in 2012 in Barcelona, with Nadal winning 6-1 6-2.
Path to the third round
Nadal, who is top seed in Barcelona, began his campaign in the second round after a bye in the first. That saw him take on fellow Spaniard, Roberto Carballes Baena, who won his first title earlier in the year in Quito. Despite a big difference in their comparative-level of experience, Carballes Baena played a very high quality match, and gave Nadal his biggest test on clay so far this year. Ultimately, however, Nadal had too much for the younger man, and won through 6-4 6-4.
Garcia Lopez, unseeded, began his tournament in the first round against Yuichi Sugita of Japan. Sugita, had a fine year in 2017, establishing himself as a consistent presence in the top 100 and winning a Tour-level title in Antalya on the grass. He gave a good account of himself against Garcia Lopez, pushing the Spaniard hard, but was ultimately left without reward as he fell 6-7 6-7. That set up a meeting with another Japanese player, Kei Nishikori. Nishikori, a two-time former champion in Barcelona, was unfortunately forced to retire after losing the first set.
How do they match up?
Garcia Lopez faces the same problem in approaching this match that Carballes Baena did. Both are fine clay court players, with the skillset to beat most on the red dirt. Indeed, Garcia Lopez has five-times been a titlist at Tour-level, with three of those crowns coming on clay courts. The basis of Garcia Lopez’s game is consistency from the baseline. The Spaniard is an excellent ball striker, both his forehand and backhand are exceedingly reliable shots.
He is also a fine mover, particularly on a clay court. However, he is not likely to hit an opponent off the court. Which is the root of the problem he has when facing Nadal. He is unlikely to outlast Nadal, who is one of the fittest players on Tour, and who can move at least as well on clay as his opponents. He can also hit through them. Nadal will likely look to target Garcia Lopez’s one handed backhand, which will have to withstand a most searching examination from the cross court forehand of Nadal.
It would likely take the best performance of Garcia Lopez’s career, or something close to it, for him to win this match. It’s hard to see what he can bring to the court to unsettle Nadal. A bigger hitter would at least have a puncher’s chance, but for Garcia Lopez it’s a very unfavourable match up. Of course, it is possible that Nadal could have a bad day, but based on his form so far on the clay this year, that does not seem likely. Nadal in straight sets.