Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova and the Winners and Losers at 2014 Barcelona Open

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistApril 28, 2014

Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova and the Winners and Losers at 2014 Barcelona Open

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    Daniel Maurer

    Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova headlined most of the action at Barcelona and Stuttgart. One of them is holding a trophy, and the other is still searching for answers. What are their French Open prospects in the  upcoming weeks?

    We also pay our respects to the Barcelona Open and its great Spanish dominance. Who would have thought this monopoly would be halted from someone born in the Far East?

    The WTA showcased high-octane tennis at Stuttgart, but Ana Ivanovic really let one slip away.

    Finally, who else is willing to step up on the ATP Tour? The top players have shown their mortality, but it still takes assailants who are ready to seize the moment.

    As always, we will hand out two awards as we look at the unusual, disappointing and triumphant happenings in tennis. These are the "winners and losers" of tennis.

Winner: Kei Nishikori

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    J Pat Carter

    It's one thing for the Barcelona Open to lose its 11-year reign of Spanish champions. It might be even more astonishing that Kei Nishikori's championship is the first clay-court title won by a Japanese-born player. Just a speed bump for Western Europe, or is it another step forward for the Far East?

    This is no accident. The fourth-seeded Nishikori has been hitting with significantly more power and ease the past few months. Not coincidentally, he is also part of Wilson's new Juice and Steam racket line. Nishikori's Steam racket is "a unique weight and balance for big power and spin for experienced players," reports 10sBalls.com.

    And maybe this is the edge and confidence-boosting weapon that Nishikori needs with his excellent speed and defense. He moves up five spots in the ATP rankings to No. 12.

    He also has former star Michael Chang to lend him expertise and vision about being a top-flight professional.

    Congratulations to Nishikori and his improving game. Is a Top 10 berth soon to be in hand? For now, he is holding our Golden Breadstick and ready to crank up his racket at Madrid.

Loser: Spanish Dynasty Ends at Barcelona

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    Manu Fernandez

    The Barcelona Open may as well be the Spanish Open. The 500-level clay-court tournament has been dominated by Spanish players with the kind of tenacity not seen since New World conquests about 500 years ago.

    The last time a non-Spaniard won the Spanish Open was in 2002, Argentina's Gaston Gaudio. Pete Sampras still had his 14th major to win that year, and Roger Federer was more than a year away from his first major.

    Since 2003, 11 straight championships have been claimed by the home country's heroes. Spain's streak started with Carlos Moya in 2003 and Tommy Robredo in 2004. Then Nadal took over, claiming eight titles in nine years. He sat out to rest in 2010, and compatriot Fernando Verdasco held the reins. Furthermore, 18 of the 22 finalists have been Spaniards.

    Of the 12 Spanish men in the Barcelona Open, only Nicolas Almagro cracked the semifinals, and he did it by knocking off King Nadal. But this was not all on Nadal. (More on Nadal later in this slideshow.)

    David Ferrer got dumped in the first round, Robredo lost a tough third-rounder and Almagro was humbled by world No. 65, Colombian Santiago Giraldo.

    Maybe the spirit of Thomas Kyd's masterpiece was doomed for an encore, but the collective Spanish disappointment is now being served the Burnt Bagel award. They did not even have a finalist in 2014.

    So, 2014 continues with its surprise stories and changes. Dynasties are being chipped at, and one week to the next seemingly brings a new flavor to the ATP.

Winner: Barcelona Tribute

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    The Barcelona Open began in 1953, and it was Americans who claimed the first five crowns.

    Spaniard Andres Gimeno claimed his country's first title in 1960, and compatriots would win six of the 12 titles through 1971. Manuel Orantes took the 1976 title and then began a 15-year drought. There were no Spanish titles in the 1980s.

    The Spanish machine was oiled up in 1991 with a title by Emilio Sanchez—known more for his doubles success and as the brother of Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario. Carlos Costa (1992), Albert Costa (1997), Felix Mantilla (1999) and Juan Carlos Ferrero (2001) were winners before Carlos Moya (2003) started up Spain's incredible 11-year winning streak.

    Amazingly, two-time French Open champion Sergi Bruguera did not win the Barcelona Open in the 1990s.

    The last time Barcelona did not have a Spanish finalist was 1996 when Thomas Muster defended his title by defeating Chilean Marcelo Rios. It was also the last time two left-handed finalists faced off, odd when we consider that Nadal has been a part of eight finals.

    All-Spanish finals have happened 10 times since 1991, but only once (1969) before then.

    Nadal's eight titles are the most by any player.

    All told, 23 Spanish championships since 1960 is quite impressive. We salute you, Spain.

Loser: Someone Other Than Wawrinka to Challenge Big Three

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    Claude Paris

    A few months ago, we looked at the possibility of 2014 as a shift in tennis power, or at least making some inroads into the dominance of the Big Three (Federer, Nadal, Novak Djokovic). Andy Murray has played a strong supporting-cast role, and now Stanislas Wawrinka is delivering some of his own punches.

    But who else is willing to rise up and and take advantage of some vulnerability at the top?

    Consider that Federer is playing well, but he has not been able to close out a big title this year.

    Nadal has not won a huge title since the U.S. Open, and he has looked shaky on clay for the first time in at least a decade, if not his lifetime.

    Djokovic must come back from a wrist injury, and we don't know how much this will affect his tennis for the rest of the clay-court season and possibly beyond.

    Murray has had more headlines about his coaching search than noteworthy wins. And clay has never been his forte.

    So, ATP, who else is ready to keep tapping at the glass ceiling? Anyone?

Winner: Barcelona Retro Look at 1990

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    Pierre Gleizes

    Most tennis fans know that veteran clay-court specialist Andres Gomez was the surprise 1990 French Open winner. He seized his opportunity to win his dream tournament with Ivan Lendl sitting out to prepare for Wimbledon. In the final, the No. 4-seeded Gomez, a seasoned veteran on clay, "upset" young Andre Agassi in his first final.

    But a look at the tournaments preceding Roland Garros confirm that Gomez was on a roll.

    On April 6, 1990, Gomez defeated Marc Rosset to win the now-defunct Madrid Tennis Grand Prix. (Since, Madrid has risen to Masters 1000 status, though it's had a run on hard courts and blue clay.)

    On April 15, 1990, Gomez played a grinding match to defeat Argentine Guillermo Perez-Roldan. Gomez won the first two sets 6-0, 7-6, but then was walloped 6-3, 6-0. He closed out the fifth set 6-2.

    A month later, he was a semifinalist at the Italian Open, falling to Muster. Gomez would get his revenge on Muster in the French Open semifinals before defeating Agassi.

    What's the lesson? It's almost impossible to sweep a clay-court season, but the eventual French Open winner has usually built up important momentum and confidence. Roland Garros is the final step, the culmination of playing well for several weeks.

    Madrid and Rome could be very important in helping to shape the 2014 French Open champion.

Loser: Ana Ivanovic

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    Daniel Maurer

    Ivanovic had this match. She was hitting with clean power and resolve, leading Sharapova 6-3, 3-1, and one point away from 4-1. She was close enough to winning the Stuttgart title and driving off in a blue Porsche. Then the wheels came off (Ivanovic's game, not the Porsche).

    She played well all week with impressive wins over Sabine Lisicki, Julia Goerges and Jelena Jankovic, so the Sharapova loss has to feel particularly bitter.

    In many ways, 2014 has been like that for Ivanovic. She has posted impressive victories, including a quarterfinals run to the Australian Open and titles at Auckland and Monterrey. But there have been a few tough losses that could have otherwise landed her in the thick of the Top 10. Indian Wells and Miami produced disappointing third- and fourth-round exits, so she is right where she should be.

    She is a former No. 1 player and the 2008 French Open winner. She has tasted top-level success, but these days it has been a mirage rather than an oasis.

    Can she put together a big winning streak? Will her good forehand and speed come together and buoy up her confidence?

    Unfortunately for this week, Ivanovic just did not have enough gas to pull away from Sharapova but was instead left choking on the dust.

Winner: Maria Sharapova

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    Daniel Maurer

    Ivanovic had all but run Sharapova off the road, but in a flash, Sharapova grabbed control and found another gear. She sped off to the 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory, claiming 11 of the last 13 games. Suddenly, she was perched on the hood of a Porsche, waving to the crowd and celebrating her career's 30th title.

    "For the first half of the match I thought it might not be my day today, but somehow I turned it around," Sharapova said to WTA Tennis.

    Sharapova found the range several times late in the match, hitting past Ivanovic with flat power and angled shots to the corner. She also hit four aces and served up only two double-faults in two hours.

    She holds steady inside the Top 10, but more importantly played with greater power, fewer errors and the kind of resilience she will need if she is to make a run at the French Open title. But for now, she probably does not mind playing hood ornament to her new Porsche.

Loser: Rafael Nadal

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    Julian Finney/Getty Images

    The tennis world is still stunned at Nadal's Barcelona Open loss to Almagro. Not that his Spanish rival can't hit a mean ball and slide on clay with just about anyone else in the world, but losing the match after a dominating start was so un-Nadal.

    Two quarterfinals losses on clay in back-to-back weeks has spawned a lot of questions that can be boiled down to four words:

    What's wrong with Rafa?

    The paradoxical answer is "not much and quite a lot." Nadal has played several stretches of his dominating clay-court tennis but has given back just as much. He appears healthy, his movement is good and there's no real loss of tennis skills. Technically, he should be at least as close to form as usual.

    But there's definitely something wrong with how he is feeling. He's pressing too much at times and does not have the same confident rhythm and patience that allow him to break others' will. Traditionally, Nadal has not been fazed at starting matches slowly. Now, it looks as if he is desperate to start them quickly.

    Nadal has almost always been able to pound away with body blows. Now, he wants to lash out with head shots. It's something inside, perhaps pressure at holding on against more emboldened opponents who are willing to attack the Spaniard with revitalized aggressiveness and game plans.

    But Nadal is missing on too many of his shots. Too often he is in control, only to inexplicably hit a wayward duck; he's not just hitting unforced errors but feeding into his encroaching opponents.

    How much of this is just mental? Success breeds success more than any strategy adjustment or video sessions with Uncle Toni. Nadal only needs to find that extra will once more and play with inspired confidence. It's about reaching back to what is familiar more than reinventing himself.

    Yes, the past two weeks have been setbacks, but nothing another match or two can't cure. There's a good chance the old clay-court Nadal will reappear and start wreaking havoc at Madrid and Rome, just like old times. His April struggles would be washed away, and he could very well blossom in May and June.

Winner: Grigor Dimitrov

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    Mark J. Terrill

    His first tournament as a No. 1 seed, and Grigor Dimitrov passed the test with flying colors. The young Bulgarian fended off streaking Lukas Rosol in the first-set tiebreaker before cruising to a 7-6 (2), 6-1 final victory at Bucharest, Romania.

    Dimitrov's consistency has been questioned, but he's becoming a more confident player at mid-level tournaments. It's also a great sign that he took care of business as a favorite. He did not drop a set the entire week.

    Now, he is inching closer to the Top 10 after rising to a career-best No. 14. Can he go deep at Masters 1000 events Madrid and Rome? Will he step up for the French Open even as other more famous stars battle with their various issues?

    "I have worked really hard to start winning titles. I have put in enough effort, time and sacrifices to get here," Dimitrov told the AP, via ATP World Tour.

    Dimitrov has all the necessary talent to win big on clay, but he must be aggressive without self-infliction. He has excellent retrieving skills, but he often drifts beyond the baseline as if needing its comfort. And this is also why he can turn a disadvantage into a spectacular winner. Has anyone starred more often in highlights?

    But Dimitrov must steer a more steady and determined course for bigger championship trophies. If he thinks he has already "put in enough time, effort and sacrifices," then his progress will be stalled. It will take 10 times the effort he has already invested.

    He must be careful not to be lulled into a false sense of security for his budding success. (Not that the recent Nike commercial with Nadal and Sharapova will get to his head.) The sirens of fame and contentment are enticing, but more effort and focus are the ways to keep the S.S. Dimitrov from crashing into the rocks.