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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) – Rafael Nadal beat defending champion Kei Nishikori 6-4, 7-5 to win the Barcelona Open for the ninth time on Sunday, equaling Guillermo Vilas' record of 49 career clay-court titles.
Nadal added this title to his trophy from Monte Carlo last week as the 14-time Grand Slam winner regains form on his favorite surface ahead of next month's French Open.
Nishikori had won the tournament for the last two years after early exits by Nadal.
In an entertaining clash of the two top-seeded players, Nadal proved more decisive under pressure, saving seven of eight break chances in the first set while converting the two chances he got.
The Spaniard then bettered second-seeded Nishikori through several superb rallies in a back-and-forth second set to win key points and claim his 69th career title in his 101st final.
"I was playing against the No. 6 player in the world, and if you don't play at your best you aren't going to win," Nadal said.
"I served well and that allowed me to play better. In the second set I missed several chances, and at the end it was very close, but I stayed mentally strong."
After losing to Fabio Fognini in the round of 16 last year, Nadal blamed his poor forehand. A year later, all Nadal's power was back on display, driving forehand strokes past Nishikori when it really mattered.
Playing near their best, both top-10 players never let the other settle in while serving.
Level at 3-3 in the first set, Nishikori had three break points, but Nadal saved them all by winning five straight points.
Nadal earned a second break to claim the first set when the Spaniard won with a shot which clipped the top of the net.
Nishikori immediately responded by rallying from 0-40 down to break Nadal's first service game of the second set.
Nadal answered with a hard-fought game — which included two superb rallies won by the home favorite at the net — to recover the break.
Nishikori got back in the match after Nadal misjudged a ball that he thought was going wide when he could have smashed it. The ball fell in, and Nishikori broke Nadal with an unreachable drop shot for 4-3.
Nishikori then landed another risky drop shot to save a championship point and make it 5-5, but Nadal claimed victory two games later when the Japanese sent the ball into the net.