WASHINGTON, May 20, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
With the French Open just a week away, Rafael Nadal has resumed his dominance on his beloved red clay. He’s recently won titles in Monte-Carlo and Barcelona, and in the past 12 months he’s lost just three sets on clay. “My clay court season has been, I think, fantastic,” Nadal was quoted by The New York Times as saying, as he chases after his eighth Internazionale BNL d’Italia title in Rome. “Two victories, one quarterfinals, and now semifinals. I can’t complain.”
On a Saturday filled with royal celebration in Great Britain, the World No. 2 Nadal and a rejuvenated Novak Djokovic – two tennis royals – met in their 51st career head-to-head meeting, most between any two players in ATP World Tour history. In their first meeting since the Madrid final a year ago, the 18th-ranked Djokovic, clearly the underdog, called playing Nadal on clay “the ultimate challenge.”
In another of their classic encounters, it was Nadal who prevailed, giving it all of the mental and physical excellence he could muster on a sunny, 23º celsius afternoon in the Italian capital city. The “King of Clay” beat Djokovic, 7-6 (4), 6-3, in one hour and 56 minutes to reach his 10th Italian Open final in front of an enthusiastic crowd that packed the Campo Centrale at Foro Italico and showed their appreciation for both players.
In talking with the media after his victory over Djokovic, Nadal said, “It was a tough battle, I think a good level of tennis. (It was a) combination of tactics, a combination of great shots for both of us. (It’s a) very important victory me. I’m very happy.”
Zverev: 13 consecutive wins
Next, Nadal will face the defending champion and No. 2 seed Alexander Zverev of Germany, who fought off No. 4 seed Marin Cilic of Croatia, 7-6 (13), 7-5, in a tenuous match that lasted two hours and one minute. It included a 24-minute, first-set tie-break in which the World No. 3 Zverev erased five set points and finally won it on his fourth set-point try. The victory represented the 13th straight match win for Zverev, who will be attempting to capture his third consecutive clay-court title in three weeks following a pair of successful runs in Munich and Madrid earlier this month.
“It’s always tough playing Marin. He’s one of the best players on Tour right now,” said Zverev following his 30th win of the season. “He knows what it takes to win the big matches in the big moments. So, I had to play my best to get the win today.”
13 consecutive wins, and 30 for the season!
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) 19. Mai 2018
Half an hour into the first semifinal match, Nadal broke Djokovic, who was playing in his first tour-level semifinal in 11 months and had won three of his past four meetings on clay against Rafa, to go ahead 4-2. Then, the Serbian won the point of the match in Nadal’s next service game with a deft, forehand cross-court pass near the net to go ahead 0-30. However, Nadal rebounded and held serve for a commanding 5-2 advantage. Although the Spaniard didn’t serve it out, as Djokovic broke back and sent the opening set to a tie-break, Nadal and Djokovic gave everyone an epic first set of tennis that lasted 71 minutes. It combined all of the drama and quality we’ve come to expect from this immense rivalry. Time and again, their shots covered the entire court, and as we witnessed especially from Nadal, their execution was beyond belief.
During the tie-break, Nadal hit some vintage forehands down the line, but it was a powerful, two-fisted backhand pass by Rafa that got him the 7-6 (4) lead, which he never relinquished.
In the second set, Nadal, who entered with a 17-1 win-loss record on clay this season, broke at love to go ahead 2-1 and from there, there was no stopping him as he gained his 356th ATP World Tour Masters 1000 match win, breaking a record he shared with Roger Federer. Despite the loss, which will drop him out of the Top 20, Djokovic remained one win ahead of Nadal, 26-25, in their career head-to-head.
“Rafa was just better in important moments. He just managed to play (the) right shots and he deserved to win. He was the better player,” said Djokovic following his loss. “I don’t think that there was too much of a difference, which is great for me, great news for me. Because Rafa is, of course, the best player ever to play tennis on clay courts. And he’s in great, great form. It’s very difficult to play him on clay anywhere. But as I said, I thought the level of my tennis was very high.”
Nadal, who is 55-8 lifetime in clay-court finals, is now one win from adding his eighth Italian Open title to his career list of accomplishments and also from regaining No. 1 in the Emirates ATP Rankings from Federer. Meanwhile, Djokovic will fall to No. 22 after being a Rome finalist last year.
Looking ahead to Sunday’s final, Nadal owns a 4-0 head-to-head advantage against Zverev. He said, “It will be a tough one. Sascha is playing great, winning a lot of matches in a row. He’s having a great year. Tomorrow, I need to be ready to keep playing my best and that’s what I’m going to try.”
Despite winning the Rome final last year, Zverev accepts being an underdog against Nadal this time. “There’s not much you need to say about him,” he said. “He’s won so many tournaments on this surface, won the French Open 10 times, so I’m definitely not the favorite in this matchup. But hopefully I’ll be ready for it. I’ll do everything I can to recover and we’ll see tomorrow how it goes.”
Women’s final set
The women’s Italian Open final will match No. 1 seed Simona Halep of Romania against defending champion and No. 4 seed Elina Svitolina of Ukraine.
On Saturday, the World No. 1 Halep came from behind to defeat Maria Sharapova of Russia, ranked 40th, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, while Svitolina beat 26th-ranked Anett Kontaveit of Estonia, 6-4, 6-3. Last year, Svitolina defeated Halep, 4-6, 7-5, 6-1, to win the Rome title.