If failing to win the Monte Carlo Masters title for the ninth year in succession last weekend was a shock to Rafael Nadal's system, the 26-year-old Spaniard showed few signs of it yesterday when he retained his Barcelona Open title in emphatic fashion.
A 6-4, 6-3 victory over Nicolas Almagro gave Nadal his fourth title since beginning his comeback in February after a seven-month absence with knee trouble.
Nadal has now won the Barcelona title eight times in the last nine years and has now won 39 matches in succession at the tournament. He was broken in his first two service games by Almagro but quickly took control thereafter, completing victory in an hour and a half. In the second set Nadal dropped only four points on his own serve in completing his tenth successive victory over his fellow Spaniard.
"I'm very happy. It has been an important week for all the Spanish players here and especially for me," Nadal said.
"It is an enormous honour for me to win here again. Nico started really strongly, and it was very difficult at the start. The conditions were tough for both of us."
The clay-court season comes to a climax over the next six weeks. The Madrid Masters, which begins next Sunday, will bring together all the world's leading players for the first time during the current clay-court campaign. Roger Federer, who has not played a tournament since last month's Indian Wells Masters, will be defending his title in the Spanish capital. Madrid will be followed by the Rome Masters and then the French Open, which begins in just 27 days' time.
Nadal, who will be aiming to win at Roland Garros for the eighth time, began his lengthy injury break after suffering a shock defeat to Lukas Rosol at Wimbledon last summer. Rosol had achieved little of note in the subsequent 10 months until yesterday, when the 27-year-old Czech won the first tour title of his career, beating Spain's Guillermo Garcia-Lopez 6-3, 6-2 in the final in Bucharest.
Maria Sharapova, who will be defending her French Open title next month, got her clay-court campaign off to the best possible start yesterday when she retained her title in Stuttgart, beating Li Na 6-4, 6-3 in the final. Having been taken to three sets in every previous round, Sharapova had surprisingly few problems against Li, who was second best from the moment she was broken at the start of the match.
"I thought it would be the toughest match of the tournament, but I played my best tennis today," Sharapova said afterwards. "I was able to step it up."
For a player who always used to look uncomfortable on clay, Sharapova is developing a formidable record on the surface. The 26-year-old Russian has won her last 16 matches on clay and lost only one of the 24 she has played since Stuttgart last year.