ROME, May 18, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
When you’ve got eight-time Italian Open winner Rafael Nadal headlining the Saturday afternoon semifinal session of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia at Foro Italico, even the weather pays attention and cooperates. While it stayed dry throughout an otherwise mostly cloudy, 19ºC day after rain was predicted, it was just a matter of time for Nadal to settle an old score – and win.
The World No. 2 Nadal booked his 50th Masters 1000 final – and first on clay this year – with a 6-3, 6-4 victory over No. 8 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece in Rome.
Nadal and Tsitsipas met for the second straight week in a Masters 1000 semifinal following the Greek’s upset of the Spaniard, 6-4, 2-6, 6-3, at last week’s Mutua Madrid Open. This time, Nadal played at a different level than he did seven days ago, and the King of Clay remained in the chase to become the first player in 2019 to defend an ATP Tour title from last season.
“(It) is (an) important victory for me because I played a solid match against a good player and a player who is winning lot of matches on this surface,” Nadal said in a press conference after his win. “So winning in straight sets against him is a very positive result. More than this is a feeling that I am playing better every week, every day. That’s important for me.”
Nadal came into his Rome semifinal against Tsitsipas with a 20-5 win-loss record, which included reaching the semifinals in all four clay-court events he has played. Yet, the 32-year-old Spaniard had not reached a final since the Australian Open back in January and has been shut out of winning any trophies – on clay or otherwise.
“What happened, I know. The solution, I know. The execution is not easy,” Nadal said following his quarterfinal win over Fernando Verdasco on Friday, as quoted by the ATP Tour website. “The theory is always easy, but the execution is much more difficult. Tennis is a simple sport. After a lot of years here, I know what happened last week, and I going to try to do it better tomorrow.”
Meanwhile, Tsitsipas, a first-time Rome semifinalist, benefited from an extra day of rest after he won his Friday quarterfinal against No. 3 seed Roger Federer in a walkover due to a right leg injury the Swiss sustained Thursday. However, it didn’t matter. Nadal gave a dominant performance on the red clay of Campo Centrale that lasted just one hour and 43 minutes – and he was in classic battle mode, always looking for a way to wear down his younger opponent.
One needed only to look at the third game of the opening set, which served as a microcosm of things to come. Ahead 2-0, Nadal wore down Tsitsipas during an eight-minute, 12-point game in which the Greek squandered two break-point chances. It never got much better for Tsitsipas after that.
Nadal brought a 3-1 head-to-head advantage into his semifinal match with the 20-year-old #NextGenATP star Tsitsipas, who was playing in just his third career ATP Masters 1000 semifinal. When Tsitsipas beat Nadal in Madrid, he became the youngest player to prevail against the Spaniard on clay in his career. Could he become just the second player – and first since Novak Djokovic accomplished the feat back in 2011 in Madrid and Rome – to beat Nadal in back-to-back tournaments? Maybe, but whatever hopes Tsitsipas had were quickly dashed by Nadal.
Indeed, there was no shortage of determination on Nadal’s part. The second-seeded Spaniard capitalized on an opportunity early in the match and broke Tsitsipas’ serve during the Greek’s very first service game with a forehand passing shot down the line from an open stance. Nadal attacked relentlessly and challenged Tsitsipas’ one-fisted backhand often. The break held up – Nadal saved the only two break points he faced in the match during his next service game – and Nadal won the 49-minute first set 6-3.
Then, Nadal’s patience rewarded him with another important break against Tsitsipas that came early in the second set. On his third break-point opportunity in the third game, Nadal finally broke Tsitsipas in the 12th point of the game to grab a 2-1 advantage. He consolidated it with an easy hold for a 3-1 lead. Later, serving for the match at 5-4, 40-0, Nadal pushed back Tsitsipas well beyond the baseline with a rocket serve that the Greek could barely get his racquet on. On the 112th point of their match (Nadal outpointed Tsitsipas 63-49), Tsitsipas hit a weak, off-balance return that sailed long – and it was over. Game, set, match, for Nadal.
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) 18. Mai 2019
“I played a little bit better than him,” Nadal said. “What I had to do is play well. Last week I didn’t play very well in Madrid. Today I did better.”
While Tsitsipas became the youngest player to beat Nadal on clay a week ago, this time, from first ball to last, it was all Nadal.
“I felt very close, despite the two-set loss,” Tsitsipas told ATPTour.com. “I’m just trying to realize what I did wrong because it was just one break in each set, if I’m not wrong. If that wouldn’t happen, you never know.”
Now, Nadal awaits the outcome of Saturday evening’s second semifinal between the World No. 1 and top seed Djokovic and unseeded Diego Schwartzman, ranked 24th. If Nadal wins on Sunday, he would stand alone with 34 Masters 1000 crowns.
• Saturday was Rafael Nadal’s record 71st Masters 1000 semifinal. With his win over Stefanos Tsitsipas, he is 11-0 in Rome semifinals. Nadal will carry into Sunday’s final an 8-2 win-loss record in championship matches at the Italian Open.
• Rafael Nadal has dominated on his serve through the tournament, holding 31 of his 32 service games (for a 97 percent efficiency rate), while he has also won 17 of his 29 (59 percent) return games.