World #1 Rafael Nadal begins his quest for an 11th Barcelona crown against his lesser known compatriot, Roberto Carballes Baena. Whilst for Nadal this is just the second tournament of the season, Carballes Baena has played a fair amount of tennis already this year. And not without success. His finest moment came in Quito at the Ecuador Open where he defeated Albert Ramos Vinolas in the final. But who will win this one?
Nadal and Carballes Baena have never met before, but there is a gulf of experience between them. Carballes Baena has just 20 match wins to his name at Tour-level. Seven have come this year, against five losses. Nadal, meanwhile, 884 career victories to his name, and 76 career titles, which is 75 more than Carballes Baena. Verdasco and Ferrer, who after Nadal were the best Spanish players of their generation, have just nine wins combined against Nadal. They have lost 40 times.
Path to the second round
Nadal, as the top seed in Barcelona, received a bye into the second round and so has not yet taken to the court in Catalonia. Roberto Carballes Baena, unseeded, scored an impressive victory against Andreas Haider-Maurer of Austria, who was playing in Barcelona on a protected ranking after a period out of the game due to injury. Carballes Baena, who won 6-2 6-4, was consistently too sharp for Haider-Maurer. But the 25-year-old from Tenerife will face a significantly tougher test against Nadal.
How do they match up?
Roberto Carballes Baena plays in the mould of a typical Spanish clay courter. Excellent movement, tirelessness and, crucially, consistent groundstrokes. Carballes Baena can run all day, and will rarely miss. But he also won’t hit through an opponent. His groundstrokes, though like Nadal’s, are heavy with topspin, are not nearly as penetrating as the world #1’s. What makes Nadal’s forehand so dangerous is not only the heavy topspin he applies but also the wild, whipping power that makes it so hard for an opponent to control.
What separates Nadal from most of his countryman, is that he has real weapons in his arsenal, as well as formidable discipline and fitness. Fernando Verdasco has weapons similar to Nadal’s, indeed his forehand may be his bigger than Nadal’s, and his serve certainly is. But he does not have Nadal’s relentlessness, and thus has never been able to attain a similar level of success. What makes this such a difficult match for Carballes Baena, and everyone, to play is that Nadal cannot be broken down from the baseline or hit through. But he can hit through them and grind them down.
Carballes Baena also doesn’t have the skill set to really make Nadal uncomfortable. When Djokovic was able to match Nadal consistently on clay he did it by be able almost reflect Nadal’s qualities back to the Spaniard. He was difficult to hit through but with power of his own. Carballes Baena does not have that power. Nor could he, as Federer might, serve and volley and generally attack the forecourt often in order to unsettle Nadal.
It’s hard to imagine Carballes Baena being able to do what no one could last week, and only one person has done since 2016, and beat Rafael Nadal on a clay court. Indeed, the one man to beat him last year, Dominic Thiem, was demolished 6-0 6-2 last week in Monte Carlo. World #5 Grigor Dimitrov was dismissed 6-1 6-4 in the last four and two-time former Barcelona champion, Kei Nishikori, was defeated in the final, 6-3 6-2. One suspects Carballes Baena might also have to content himself with such a score line. Nadal in straight sets.