Top seed and eight-time Barcelona Open champion Rafael Nadal faces Fabio Fognini in a rematch of their 2015 third round meeting, in which Fognini stunned the Spaniard on his home turf. The mercurial Italian troubled Nadal throughout 2015, with wins in Rio, Barcelona, and at the US Open all for the Italian, with wins for Nadal in the finals of Hamburg, before rounding out the 2015 series with a straight sets win in Beijing as well.
How they got here
Nadal began his quest for a ninth Barcelona title with a second round meeting against veteran countrymen, Marcel Granollers. Nadal put up a demolition job on his compatriot, easing past the doubles specialist 6-3, 6-2. In the next round, the nine-time French Open champion faced another Spaniard in the form of Albert Montantes. The match was very similar to Nadal's previous one against Granollers, with the former world number one dominating throughout on his way to a 6-2, 6-2 victory to set up a re-match with Fognini.
With Fognini returning from injury last week in Monte Carlo, expectations were relatively low for the Italian after a dismal loss to Frenchmen Benoit Paire last week on the French Riviera. This week in the Catalan capital, last year's quarterfinalist began his 2016 campaign against veteran Russian Mikhail Youzhny. In a titanic three set affair, with a score line very similar to the volatile nature of Fognini's career, the Italian came out on top 3-6, 6-0, 6-1 to move on to the third round. In the round of sixteen, Fognini breezed past Serbian Viktor Troicki 6-3, 6-2 to set up a tenth meeting with Nadal.
The two first met in 2013 at the Foro Italico in Rome, where Nadal dominated Fognini at the Italian's home tournament 6-1, 6-3. The pair's 2013 clay court exhibits kept up at Roland Garros, where the 14-time Grand Slam champion kept up his perfect head to head with a straight sets win on the terre battue of Paris. Later that year in Beijing and then in 2014 in Miami, the former number one kept up winning ways against Fognini, winning in China in three sets and in Miami in straights in their only meeting in 2014.
The real drama in the Nadal-Fognini rivalry spiced up in 2015, in a heated semifinal match on a late Saturday night in Rio. After crushing Fognini in the opener, the erratic Italian came storming back to take the next two sets and defeat Nadal, provoking some un-happy comments from Nadal about umpire Carlos Bernardes. The drama kept up at Nadal's home tournament of Barcelona, where Fognini again upset Nadal, this time in straight sets on the Spaniard's home turf.
In the finals of Hamburg, with Nadal seeking his biggest title of the year, the former world number one topped his Italian rival, but not with some controversial words and arguments, with Fognini coming across the court to Nadal's side at a changeover to fight with the Spaniard. Later that year at the final major of the year in New York, Nadal went up two sets to love over Fognini in the third round, before an electric Fognini came storming back to win the next three sets and knock out the 2010 and 2013 champion. The Spaniard though claimed the last laugh at the China Open in Beijing, where Nadal won through in straight sets.
With Fognini just returning from injury and Nadal extremely high on confidence after a monumental ninth title in Monte Carlo, the Spaniard is clearly the one with the advantage going in. Though Fognini may be a heavy underdog, the flamboyant Italian is never short of tricks and will be sure to deploy all of them on his Spanish rival. After an extremely successful 2015 against Nadal, Fognini should be undaunted by the prospect of facing Nadal on clay. That being said, the Spaniard seems to have found his form and looks on course to claim a ninth Barcelona title. Expect the fourteen-time major champion to make it through relatively routinely to a historic ninth semifinal in the Catalan capital.
Prediction: Nadal in straight sets