How Nadal Triumphed In Rome
There was little doubt that Rafael Nadal and Alexander Zverev were the most in-form players on the ATP World Tour, so it was only fitting that they battled it out for the final clay-court ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title of the season at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia.
A lot was on the line for Nadal — the Spaniard needed to lift his eighth trophy at the Foro Italico to regain the top spot in the ATP Rankings after losing it this week to Roger Federer due to his quarter-final loss at the Mutua Madrid Open (l. to Thiem) last week.
And despite trailing by a break in the third set, Nadal came back to defeat Zverev 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 in the Italian capital. After falling behind the baseline in rallies, the Spaniard used a second rain delay in the decider while trailing 3-2 to regroup, coming out firing to claim his 32nd Masters 1000 title.
Zverev, on the other hand, was in his fifth final at the elite level in the past 52 weeks after reaching his maiden championship match in Rome last year. He saw his 13-match winning streak come to an end, and now trails Nadal 0-5 in their FedEx ATP Head2Head series.
This is how the final unfolded...
FIRST SET - Nadal 6-1
For the second consecutive day, Nadal faced multiple break points in the first game of the match. But whereas he escaped a 15/40 deficit against Novak Djokovic, he couldn’t do the same from 0/40 against Zverev, changing a backhand-to-forehand crosscourt pattern to his own demise, eventually missing a backhand long.
But the top seed immediately responded with a break of his own and did not look back, breaking Zverev twice more to storm through the opener in 33 minutes. While the Spaniard is camping near the back wall to return the second seed's serve, the German is not taking advantage of that court positioning. Unbelievably, Zverev, on a 13-match winning streak, has won just five points on serve thus far (5/18).
Even when Zverev is able to attack during points, Nadal is not on his heels, but waiting for moments to change direction and step in himself. And when the defending champion has approached the net, he has gotten passed, while the Spaniard has shown beautiful finishing touch at the net. Nadal has even used a short, baiting slice so he could shuffle closer to the baseline and take the offensive on his next shot. At one point, the top seed won 16 of 19 points.
SECOND SET - Zverev 6-1
After Nadal rushed through the final six games of the opening set, it appeared he was well on his way to extending his FedEx ATP Head2Head series lead against Zverev to 5-0. But the German held to open the set, stopping the momentum, and from there he turned the tide.
Zverev broke for the second time in the match and instead of giving it right back, he held to love, with Nadal beginning to make more mistakes. And that was the only opening the German needed to play more aggressively, dictating far more than in the first set. And whereas the Spaniard seemed comfortable when playing defence in the first set, simply biding his time to pounce, the opposite was true in the second set. The 21-year-old took his shots a bit earlier to take time away from Nadal, not giving him time to react. And in neutral rallies, he was the one ramping up the pace and being the aggressor, keeping the Spaniard from taking control.
Zverev fell behind 0/30 as he served for the set, but did not let his focus slip, winning the next four points and closing out the set with a clean backhand winner down the line. Amazingly, he won 73 per cent of his service points in the second set after claiming just 28 per cent in the opener.
Nadal had won 17 consecutive sets in clay-court finals and it is his first 6-1 set lost on the surface since his loss in the Roland Garros quarter-finals against Novak Djokovic in 2015. The 31-year-old is 49-3 in tour-level clay-court finals after winning the opening set. His last loss under the circumstances came against Novak Djokovic at the Foro Italico four years ago.
THIRD SET - Nadal 6-3
Zverev had all the momentum in the final. He gained a break advantage with a smart return, looping it high and deep so he could quickly change court positioning, keeping Nadal back while hurrying up to the baseline. He took advantage of that by throwing in a drop shot and following it in, forcing an error from Nadal.
Rain caused a delay with Nadal serving at 1-3 15/0. The players quickly returned to court, and Nadal held. But the rain began to fall again, sending the players back inside. After a 45-minute delay, play resumed once again.
This time, Nadal immediately showed renewed aggressive intentions, pressuring Zverev and forcing the German to stay deep behind the baseline. That intensity helped the Spaniard break back for 3-3, before holding to 15 to take the lead. Zverev could not take advantage of Nadal's early struggles on his first serve in the decider, failing to push the left-hander back far enough with his second-serve returns.
Nadal maintained his aggression, pressuring Zverev to break again for 5-3, serving out the match without complications. He finished it off with beautiful touch at the net, carving a crosscourt backhand drop volley from near the service line.
The story of this match was simple — control the baseline, control the match. Nadal let off the gas in the second set, especially on the forehand wing, allowing Zverev to step in. But once the players returned after the second rain delay, the champion showed he would not make that mistake again, guaranteeing his return to the top spot of the ATP Rankings.