WASHINGTON, May 20, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
As Alexander Zverev attempted to lift a championship trophy for the third consecutive week, the 21-year-old German knew that if anyone could stop his 13-match winning streak, it would be Rafael Nadal. Unfortunately for Zverev, that’s exactly who he faced in Sunday afternoon’s final of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome – Nadal, the King of Clay, whose 19-1 win-loss record on the red dirt this season after winning his eighth Italian Open, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3, puts him on a different plateau from his competitors.
Down 2-3 in the third set, the World No. 2 Nadal returned from a 45-minute rain delay on a mission – a Roman conquest, if you will. He didn’t lose another game. The Spaniard won the last five games of the two hour and nine minute final, and his latest championship title only adds to his clay-court legend.
“It has been an amazing week,” said Nadal after his victory over Zverev. “Such an important week to have this trophy with me again after losing in the quarterfinals in Madrid. It was unforgettable and emotional for me. It’s amazing to win eight titles in Rome. It’s a difficult event and to have the chance to win again here means a lot. This is the moment to enjoy winning here again.”
Although five matches doesn’t constitute a rivalry – especially when all of them have been won by the same player – the Nadal-Zverev matchup, between the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, offered a glimpse of both players at their best just a week before Roland Garros. Nadal, whose streak of 50 consecutive winning sets on clay was snapped by Dominic Thiem in Madrid a week ago, came out on fire under partly cloudy skies that later changed to rain before another packed crowd on the Campo Centrale at Foro Italico.
After being broken in his initial service game, the 31-year-old Nadal brushed it off and came back to capture six games in a row to take the first set 6-1. He’s nearly unbeatable in tour-level clay-court finals (now 50-3) after winning the opening set. However, Zverev regrouped nicely and jumped out to a 5-0 lead in the second set. He won it 6-1 with an amazing variety of shots – forehands up the line, drop shot winners, backhand volleys – that kept Nadal off balance and guessing. On set point, Zverev zapped a calculated backhand winner up the line that caught Nadal dead in his tracks. It was the first set that Zverev had ever beaten Nadal on clay.
Nadal, who had won 17 consecutive sets in clay-court finals coming in, hadn’t lost a 6-1 set on clay since his 2015 quarterfinal loss at Roland Garros to Novak Djokovic, 7-5, 6-3, 6-1. Clearly, the momentum appeared to favor Zverev with the match even at a set all. But, then, the rain came – and it was a difference maker.
Rain delay helps Nadal
With a light rain falling, Zverev broke Nadal at the outset of the third set and held for a quick 2-0 lead. Two games later, he increased the margin to 3-1. Then, after an 11-minute delay, Nadal remained strong and gave a fist pump after holding serve to trail 2-3. However, after 1 hour and 46 minutes of play, Nadal and Zverev were pulled off court and sent to the locker room, and the tarp was placed on the Campo Centrale court. After the second rain delay, play resumed and Nadal immediately went to work. He determinedly fought off a game point by Zverev and won three straight points with deep forehand returns to break back to 3-all. A momentum swing was unfolding – and this time it had shifted from Zverev to Nadal.
Nadal won the first point on his serve in the seventh game with a skyhook smash, then comfortably held for 4-3 when Zverev hit a forehand long. The pressure was back on the defending champion Zverev’s racket – with the fatigue of playing his 13th match in the last 19 days starting to show – and Nadal looked stronger with each point he won. In the next game, Nadal broke Zverev when the German, under pressure, lofted a forehand lob that went too long.
🏆 🏆 🏆 🏆 🏆 🏆 🏆 🏆
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) 20. Mai 2018
“Rafa is of a different mindset when the match is on the line,” commented Tennis Channel analyst Lindsay Davenport, after Nadal extended his final-set lead to 5-3, needing just one more game to reach the finish line. In the final game. Nadal, steady and focused, put away the match on his second match-point opportunity with a lovely drop volley winner.
Nadal and Zverev, separated in age by 10 years, shared a warm embrace at the net. Now, as they head to Roland Garros, where they will be seeded No. 1 and No. 2, Nadal has won three clay-court titles (Monte-Carlo, Barcelona and Rome) this season – and an amazing 56 for his career – and Zverev two (Munich and Madrid). By winning Rome, his 32nd Masters 1000 title and 78th ATP title overall, Nadal will return to No. 1 when the Emirates ATP Rankings are updated Monday, beginning his 174th week at the top.
“You’re an amazing champion; you proved it again tonight. You’re the greatest clay court player of all time and I think everybody saw that today,” Zverev said to Nadal during the trophy presentation. “To get so close here is a disappointment, but … we lost to Rafa.” Zverev shrugged his shoulders as if to ask “what can I do to win?” But he smiled as he complimented Nadal on his title.
Nadal, who gave his acceptance speech in both English and Italian, beamed a big smile as he held the championship trophy aloft and soaked in the applause. It was his first Italian Open title in five years. He offered congratulations to his younger competitor, Zverev, on his great year, then said of Sunday’s final, “I can’t predict the present, but today was a difficult match. It was decided by just a few points.”
Cabal/Farah take doubles title
The sixth-seeded team of Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah, both of Columbia, came from behind to beat Pablo Carreño Busta of Spain and Joao Sousa of Portugal, 3-6, 6-4, 10-4, to win their first ATP World Tour Masters 1000 doubles title. They became the first all-South American team to win a title at the Masters 1000 level and it was their 11th title overall.
“This is the title we have been looking for, for a long time,” said Cabal. “We’ve been working hard for it. Hard work plays off in the end and we’re really happy about it. This keeps us motivated.”
Svitolina defends women’s title
No. 4 seed Elina Svitolina successfully defended her Rome title with a 6-0, 6-4 win over top seed and World No. 1 Simona Halep. The match was highlighted by a 19-minute, first-set bagel for the confident Svitolina, ranked fourth. Halep won just eight points during the opening set and never recovered. The Romanian appeared to be bothered by a back injury and exited the court for treatment by a trainer during a medical time out that was taken while she trailed 2-3 in the second set.
It was the third title win of the season for the Ukranian as well as her eighth straight win in a final and 12th career title overall. En route to lifting the Italian Open trophy for the second straight year, Svitolina showed her dominance during consecutive straight-set wins over Angelique Kerber, Anna Kontaveit and Halep the past three days. Against Halep, she hit 18 winners and never faced a break point. Svitolina improved her career head-to-head record to 4-2 against Halep.
Defeats Simona Halep 6-0, 6-4 for her third title win of the season! pic.twitter.com/OY2Gy7zJ91
— WTA (@WTA) 20. Mai 2018
“It’s amazing that I could come and defend my title here,” Svitolina said after her victory. She became the first woman since Serena Williams in 2013 and 2014 to defend her title at the Italian Open. “It’s really something very, very special for me.”
Meanwhile, Halep’s lopsided loss just a week before Roland Garros is not something one would expect of a No. 1. According to Ben Rothenberg, tennis correspondent for The New York Times, Halep has lost 12 sets by either 6-0 or 6-1 over the past 12 months.
No. 8 seed Ashleigh Barty of Australia and Demi Schuurs of the Netherlands won the doubles title with a 6-3, 6-4 win over the Czech Republic duo Andrea Sestini Hlavackova and Barbora Strycova, seeded second, 6-3, 6-4.