WASHINGTON, May 18, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
#NextGenATP rising star and new Canadian No. 1 Denis Shapovalov celebrated the biggest win of his young and promising career on a summer evening at last August’s ATP World Tour Masters 1000 Rogers Cup in Montreal, stunning Rafael Nadal, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (4), and denying him the chance to seize the No. 1 world ranking. In their first meeting since, at this week’s Internazionali BNL d’Italia, Shapovalov faced Nadal, still ranked No. 2 but undisputedly the king of clay, on a lovely spring Thursday afternoon in front of a packed Centrale audience gathered at Foro Italico.
With a quarterfinal berth in the Masters 1000 Italian Open at stake, the question on every tennis pundit’s mind was: Could Shapovalov replicate his Montreal hard-court success on a clay court in Rome? The answer would be no. This time, Nadal didn’t let the 19-year-old Shapovalov beat him.
Shapovalov, who began play this week ranked a career-best No. 29, knew nothing would come easy the second time against Nadal – and it didn’t. What the 31-year-old Spaniard did was to methodically break Shapovalov down. He took command from the seventh game of the opening set and maintained his dominance on red clay the rest of the way en route to a 6-4, 6-1 victory. It was Nadal’s 20th match win of the year and his 53rd career win in Rome, a tournament he’s won seven times – but not since 2013. On Friday, he’ll face 21st-ranked Fabio Fognini of Italy, a winner over Peter Gojowczyk of Germany, 6-4, 6-4, in the first quarterfinal of the day on Centrale at noon. Fognini, who is 3-10 lifetime against Nadal, reached the quarterfinals of his home tournament for the first time in 11 tries and has been a popular fixture on Centrale all week long.
“It was a solid match for me,” Nadal told the media during his post-match gathering with them. “I started with some mistakes on the return, but with my serve, I didn’t lose many points.”
Early on, Shapovalov faced – and fought off – eight break points in just his first two service games, and gutted out an 11-minute hold for 2-1 in the first set. Nadal showed no mercy – he was a man on a mission – and the youthful Shapovalov expected none. Yet, by holding his service in both games, Shapovalov showed he was ready for anything that Nadal wanted to attack him with – blistering forehands, solid two-fisted backhands, overhead smashes.
Nadal, who is 11-1 in his last dozen clay-court matches with only a blemish last week against Dominic Thiem in Madrid standing in the way of perfection, served remarkable against Shapovalov. He placed 84 percent of his first serves in play and won 90 percent (28 of 31) of his first-serve points – and he backed it with a 67 percent (4 of 6) winning clip on his second serve. Nadal, who lost just five points on his serve the entire match, did not face any break points.
At 3-all in the first set, Nadal broke Shapovalov’s serve on his ninth try to go ahead 4-3 and prevailed, 6-4, by winning all but two points on his serve in the opening set. In fact, it took 16 tries before Shapovalov earned a point off his opponent’s serve. By the end of the set, Nadal had won 20 of 22 service points.
“At the beginning, I really think that he was serving big,” said Nadal. “I got the break in the 3-all. And then the match changed… He probably stopped to serve that big a little bit, and I was a little bit more relaxed.”
The second set started off on the wrong foot for Shapovalov when he committed his fourth double fault and was broken in the opening game. He got his confidence back in his next service game with a good hold, but being down a set and a break, “Shapo” faced an uphill battle. On his next service game, behind 3-1, Shapovalov lost three straight points after being ahead 40-0, which included his fifth double fault. Immediately, Nadal seized the opportunity and broke the young Canadian for the third time to take an insurmountable, double-break lead at 4-1. Although Nadal yielded a couple of points on his service while going ahead 5-1, it really didn’t matter. Finally, as the Centrale court became covered in shade around 5:20 p.m., in the next game, Nadal broke Shapovalov one last time and won on his second match-point opportunity. The match wrapped up in a tidy 82 minutes.
As it happened, Thursday’s match wasn’t a repeat of the epic battle from Montreal, which was Shapovalov’s break out moment. As a consolation, Shapovalov will become the new Canadian No. 1 next week, surpassing Milos Raonic, following his back-to-back runs in Madrid and Rome. What this match showed us, though, is that Nadal, who will regain the World No. 1 ranking from Roger Federer if he wins his eighth Italian Open title and 32nd Masters 1000 crown, is refocused and ready after his Madrid slip up against Thiem – and he remains the player to beat at Roland Garros.
“I know I have to play well, to keep having chances and keep going in the tournament,” said Nadal. “I hope to be ready to make that happen, to play at the right level and to be competitive.”
News and notes:
• Defending champion and World No. 3 Alexander Zverev of Germany needed eight match points to beat 19th-ranked Kyle Edmund of Great Britain, 7-5, 7-6 (11). The victory advanced the No. 2 seed to his fourth ATP World Tour Masters 1000 quarterfinal of the season. Zverev has now won 22 consecutive sets and 11 straight matches. Edmund was attempting to reach back-to-back Masters 1000 quarterfinals after reaching the quarterfinals at Madrid last week. Next, Zverev will play No. 9 seed David Goffin of Belgium, who advanced to his second Masters 1000 quarterfinals of the season and third Rome quarterfinal of his career when No. 5 seed Juan Martín del Potro of Argentina retired in the second set due to a groin injury with Goffin ahead 6-2, 4-5.
• No. 4 seed Marin Cilic of Croatia advanced to play No. 10 seed Pablo Carreño Busta of Spain. On Thursday, Cilic overcame an early second-set break to beat Benoit Paire of France, 6-3, 6-4, to ensure his second consecutive Rome quarterfinal appearance and third Rome quarterfinal overall. Meanwhile, Carreño Busta needed three sets to defeat Aljaz Bedene of Slovenia, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-2. Earlier this year, Cilic beat Carreño Busta in the fourth round at the Australian Open.
• Unseeded Kei Nishikori of Japan ended the run of Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber, 6-1, 6-2, in just 63 minutes in a meeting of Top 30 players. Next, the 24th-ranked Nishikori will face No. 11 seed Novak Djokovic of Serbia, who completed the quarterfinal field with a satisfying 6-1, 7-5 victory over Albert Ramos-Vinolas of Spain. Djokovic, who is a four-time champion in Rome (2008, 2011, 2014, 2015), owns a 13-2 career head-to-head against Nishikori.