Nadal Wins Roman Battle Against Shapovalov

Rafael Nadal and Denis Shapovalov (photo: @atptour/Twitter)

ROME/WASHINGTON, May 14, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Each year, our love affair with Rome grows as the bond gets stronger and stronger. What a difference a day at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia made with the return of fans at Foro Italico. As Covid-19 restrictions are easing, the atmosphere was amazingly different. Having live fans cheer the players on made quite a difference. Even if they had to beat a hasty retreat in order to meet a mandated 10 p.m. curfew, which left the last two matches of the day – Dominic Thiem versus Lorenzo Sonego and Andrey Rublev against Roberto Bautista Agut – without fans to cheer on the players to the end.

Regardless, one need look no further than Thursday afternoon’s featured third-round match on Campo Centrale featuring nine-time Italian Open champion Rafael Nadal against World No. 13 Denis Shapovalov to appreciate the impact the fans had on the players – and, it gave Nadal a rare opportunity this season to be able to lift his arms in celebration of another victory on clay.

The King of Clay fought back from an early deficit, saved two match points against Shapovalov and won 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (3) in three hours and 27 minutes to advance to Friday’s quarterfinal round. It was his 19th straight win against a left-handed competitor and puts him into a record-extending 97th Masters 1000 quarterfinal against World No. 6 Alexander Zverev on Friday in a rematch of their Madrid quarterfinal a week ago.

Although Shapovalov positioned himself to end his 14-match losing streak against Top Five opponents by looking sharp in winning the opening set and taking an early lead in the decider, once again it’s difficult to ever count Nadal out on clay.

While trailing a set and 3-0, 30-40, and well as 3-1 and 40-0, Nadal stood his ground on the red clay and leveled the contest. Although Shapovalov didn’t crumble, he had his chances and didn’t capitalize on them.

Instead, Nadal proved clutch under the most difficult of circumstances and raised the level of his game when it counted the most. The Spaniard finished with 29 winners to 37 unforced errors and converted four of 14 break-point chances, while Shapovalov hit 41 winners but also committed 46 unforced errors. He was successful on five of 10 break-point opportunities. Nadal outpointed the Canadian 119-114 and won five more points on his serve – 70 to 65 – than his opponent.

“[It] is an important victory for me [to] be able to win matches like today, three hours and 27 [minutes], in the Barcelona final three hours and 38 [minutes], long matches,” Nadal said during his virtual press conference. “To be able to win these kinds of matches against young players gives me confidence with my body. It’s true that I have to do things better for tomorrow. But the main thing today for me is [to] recover physically.”

Shapovalov reflected on his loss and didn’t hold back his feelings. “These matches, you have nothing to lose,” he said. “I also think I have what it takes to beat these guys. It’s not a surprise to me. It’s just a tough loss. Of course, it’s not the first time Rafa’s done this. I’m not the first person to lose with match points. For sure, he does well with the pressure in those moments.

“Just something I have to take back and just make a couple changes. But I’m definitely happy where my game’s at, relatively speaking, against the greatest player on this surface.”

No. 1 seeds: Barty, Djokovic take care of business

World No. 1 and top seed Ashleigh Barty took care of business against No. 28 Veronika Kudermetova of Russia, winning 6-3, 6-3, in one hour and 21 minutes to set up a first-time quarterfinal matchup on Friday against American teenager Coco Gauff, who upset World No. 4 and No. 7 seed Aryna Sabalenka.

Barty fired nine aces, hit 20 winners and broke Kudermetova four times in eight opportunities. She outpointed her opponent 69-52. The Aussie saved six of the seven break points she faced.

“Been really nice just to play matches again,” Barty said earlier this week. “I think getting into the swing of things, used to playing week after week is important. Mentally and physically, I feel good. It’s just about now preparing as best that I can to play here in Rome and try and play well.”

After the match, Barty, who improved to 13-2 on clay this season and is in her 75th week of being ranked No. 1, said of her Campo Centrale experience: “I think once I walked out there, it was a bit of a ‘wow’ factor. Pretty impressive center court, took some time to get used to that.

“Without and out, happy with how we were able to tactically move about that match today and kind of stick to what we hoped would work and be able to execute.”

Meanwhile, five-time Rome champion Novak Djokovic needed just 70 minutes to reach the quarterfinal round with a 6-2, 6-1 win over 48th-ranked Alejandro Davidovich Fokina on Campo Centrale with the venue filled to 25 percent capacity for the first time as Covid-19 restrictions are being eased for the remainder of the tournament at Foro Italico.

“It was not good, it was great,” said Djokovic, who after losing his serve to start the match broke Davidovich Fokina five times and won to reach his 15th straight quarterfinal in the Italian capital city. “I love the crowd as much as anyone else. It’s one of the reasons I keep on playing. It was nice to see them back.

“I missed the crowd. It always feels like home coming back to Rome.

“Honestly, with the amount of love and appreciation that I get and respect from people here, not just on the court, but outside in the organization here, from the drivers, the restaurant, people in hotel, everyone is really super kind to me.

“Maybe it helps that I speak Italian. Probably does. I love Italy. Who doesn’t?

“Each year the love affair grows even more because the bond is stronger and stronger.

“Hopefully, I can feel a little bit of that love more tomorrow so I can keep on progressing in the tournament.”

Gauff, Swiatek: These kids are alright

American teenager Coco Gauff ended the seven-match winning streak of Madrid champion Aryna Sabalenka Thursday afternoon, 7-5, 6-3, to reach her fourth quarterfinal of the season and second at the WTA 1000 level. Gauff’s achievement was her third Top 10 victory and second win over a Top Five player, following her win against Naomi Osaka at the 2020 Australian Open.

The 17-year-old Gauff’s win over Sabalenka was her second in three meetings with the Belarusian and it followed her success last summer at Lexington on an outdoor hardcourt. Sabalenka beat Gauff near the end of the season indoors in Ostrava. Both of those matches went three sets.

Sabalenka had been strong on clay, having reached the final in Stuttgart followed by her title run in Madrid. However, on a slower surface in Rome, Sabalenka was held to 22 winners, which weren’t enough to offset her 36 unforced errors.

“It’s one of those matches that for me as a fan, if I were to be able to watch myself play, that would be a match that I would want to watch,” Gauff said during her virtual press conference afterward. “Because y ou know we’re going to bring everything we have from the beginning to the end. She brings the intensity on the court from the first point. I have to make sure that I manage that and bring even more intensity. I think you feel it the whole match.”

Next, Gauff will have a first-time meeting against World No. 1 and top seed Ashleigh Barty in Friday’s quarterfinal round.

Meanwhile, 19-year-old Iga Swiatek of Poland saved a couple of match points en route to her 3-6, 7-6 (5), 7-5 victory over No. 40 Barbora Krejcikova of the Czech Republic in a third-round match that was played at times in windy conditions and lasted two hours and 50 minutes. The victory vaulted the No. 15 seed into her second quarterfinal of the season, although it wasn’t always a pretty sight.

The two competitors combined for nine breaks of serve in 27 attempts and there was only a two-point difference in total points. Swiatek outscored Krejcikova 117-115.

“I just had a tough day mentally,” Swiatek admitted. “It was hard for me to be positive. I’m really happy I could win that; I could turn the score around. Usually in this situation I was the kind of person that was kind of giving up mentally. Today, even though I wasn’t feeling completely perfect on court, I had some issues as well, I could manage with everything and just win points.”

Next, Swiatek will face No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina, who advanced to the quarterfinals with a 6-4, 6-2 win over No. 12 seed Garbiñe Muguruza, in one hour and 16 minutes, in which the two-time Rome champion hit 23 winners against just 11 unforced errors and broke Muguruza seven times.

“I was just trying to find my good game, trying to move quick, trying to be aggressive at the same time,” Svitolina said during her virtual press conference. “When I play against some big hitters like Petra [Kvitova], Garbiñe, Aryna [Sabalenka] as well, they are really taking big swings. You have no time to do anything, so you have to be really quick, you have to be on your toes all the time, try to get your own, create your own opportunities.

“That’s why I was going into the match with an aggressive mindset. I think in the end I was really composed and really tough on the important moments.”

Tsitsipas looking forward to Djokovic rematch

Stefanos Tsitsipas, who earlier this year won the Monte-Carlo Masters and finished runner up at Barcelona, ended the run of Italy’s Matteo Berrettini, 7-6 (3), 6-2, in one hour and 36 minutes on the Grand Stand Arena. Tsitsipas hit just 16 winners but also committed just seven unforced errors while Berrettini put up bigger numbers: 23 winners and 20 unforced errors. Tsitsipas converted two of seven break points and saved both break points he faced from the World No. 9 from Rome.

Berrettini, who was a finalist at Madrid last week, was outpointed 67-56. The victory sets up a quarterfinal between Tsitsipas and World No. 1 and top seed Novak Djokovic, whom the Greek rising star owns a 2-4 head-to-head record again. In their most recent clash, Djokovic pulled out a five-set victory – 6-3, 6-2, 5-7, 4-6, 6-1 – in last year’s Roland Garros semifinals.

“[Djokovic] has won here a lot of times. I am just expecting to go out there [and] give my best performance,” Tsitsipas said after his victory. “He can play on all surfaces. We played each other at Roland Garros. I see this as an opportunity for me to do something better this time. I hope to be able to play the same tennis that I have been playing so far and be a challenge for him.”

Around the Foro Italico


• No. 6 seed Alexander Zverev rallied to beat No. 45 Kei Nishikori of Japan, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, in back of 35 winners, to move into Friday’s quarterfinal round against World No. 3 and second seed Rafael Nadal. Zverev outpointed Nishikori 115-106. Afterward, during an on-court interview, Zverev said: “Without the home crowd I don’t think I would have won today. They gave me extra energy I needed. I was exhausted in the second set, I had Madrid in the legs. If we had played behind closed doors, this match would have been over 1 1/2 hours ago.”

• No. 33 Lorenzo Sonego came into his third-round match against World No. 4 and fourth seed Dominic Thiem with a 1-6 win-loss record against Top 10 opponents. However, with the support of Italian fans for the first two sets – until they had to depart in advance of a mandated 10 p.m. curfew in Rome – Sonego beat the reigning US Open champion 6-4, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5) in three hours and 24 minutes to advance to Friday’s quarterfinals against No. 7 seed Andrey Rublev, who hit 23 winners in beating No. 10 seed Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain, 6-4, 6-4, in one hour and 29 minutes.


• No. 9 seed Karolina Pliskova, who won Rome in 2019 and was runner up a year ago, moved into the quarterfinal round with a 7-5, 6-3 win over 113th-ranked Russian qualifier Vera Zvonareva, a former World No. 2 and Rome semifinalist in 2004 and 2005.

“I think [Zvonareva is] a big fighter,” Pliskova said. “I think she’s now back at a certain level, which is quite difficult to beat. Definitely, I had to win that match because she’s not going to give anything for free. That’s what I know. Also, I remember from the past how she played.”

Next, Pliskova will face No. 49 Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia, who gutted out a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 win over No. 26 Angelique Kerber of Germany, by hitting 51 winners.

• American Jessica Pegula advanced with a straight-set victory over No. 33 Ekaterina Alexandrova of Russia, 6-2, 6-4, backing up her win over World No. 2 Naomi Osaka in the second round. Against Alexandrova, she converted all seven of her break-point chances.

“My awareness out there is so much better,” the 31st-ranked Pegula said. “Whereas before, maybe I’d just get too frustrated or I didn’t quite understand what I was doing to win or lose the match, what was happening.”

Next, Pegula will face No. 25 Petra Martic of Croatia, who ended the run of Argentina’s 44th-ranked Nadia Podoroska, 3-6, 6-1, 6-2. A day earlier Podoroska stunned Serena Williams.

“Today was a tough one,” Martic said. “I started slow again. The last couple of matches, I started 3-0, 4-0 down. That’s definitely something I need to pay attention to, start the match a bit sharper from my side. I think it took my rhythm a bit too long. That was one thing I was not happy with today.”

Cheering fans return to Foro Italico

According to the tournament website, Foro Italico was separated into three separate clusters – Campo Centrale, Grand Stand Arena and Stadio Pietrangeli and outer courts – each with dedicated accesses and exits, restrooms and food stalls. Fans are only allowed access to the cluster they have tickets for and may only sit in their assigned seats.

The seating capacities are: 2,415 on Campo Centrale, 1,493 on Grand Stand Arena, 774 on Stadio Pietrangeli and 590 on the outer courts.

Because of a 10 p.m. curfew, only one night match was scheduled Thursday on Campo Centrale (Elina Svitolina versus Garbiñe Muguruza) and one match on Grand Stand Arena (Lorenzo Sonego versus Dominic Thiem). In the case of the Sonego-Thiem match, play was interrupted for more than 20 minutes and the players were sent back to the locker room in order for the Grand Stand Arena to be vacated before the players returned to play the final set of their match.

Thursday’s WTA Italian Open results

Thursday’s ATP Italian Open results

Friday’s Foro Italico order of play

By the numbers

What they’re saying

• World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty on her quarterfinal matchup against Coco Gauff: “Coco has shown that she loves to bring her best tennis against players that challenge her the most. She’s played an exceptional tournament thus far. She’s got the ability to take the game on. She’s aggressive, she can run, she can thrust her legs.

“I think it’s going to be important for me to try to get the match back on my terms as often as possible. I know when they’re in her patterns, the way she likes to play, she’s extremely dangerous and very good at what she does. It think it’s going to be a new challenge, a clean slate for both of us.”

Rafael Nadal following his come-from-behind victory over Denis Shapovalov: “[This] has been a positive victory for me. I [fought] until the end a lot to be in quarterfinals. Tomorrow is a chance to play a quarterfinal match. I hope to be ready to compete well.”

• Forty-seventh-ranked American Reilly Opelka on No. 27 Aslan Karatsev of Russia, whom he beat 7-6 (6), 6-4 to advance to his first quarterfinal of the season against Argentina’s 64th-ranked Federico Delbonis, who defeated No. 21 Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada, 7-6 (3), 6-1, to reach his first Masters 1000 quarterfinal: “Pretty rare that a guy who, all of a sudden, at age 27, kind of had his best year and kind of comes out and physically is one of the strongest tennis players I’ve ever seen. His body is like no other tennis player’s build. His physique is nothing I’ve ever seen before.”

Denis Shapovalov after losing to Rafael Nadal: “You go out, play with nothing to lose. Who is going to give me crap for losing to Rafa? Of course, it helps to play freely. I also think I have the game; I have what it takes to beat these guys. It’s not a surprise to me. It’s just a tough loss.”

• Unseeded Jessica Pegula on how changing her baseline position has made her a better player: “In Madrid, honestly [Aryna] Sabalenka killed me. I didn’t realize until after the match, but my coach [David Witt] was saying she was standing a really far back. She was obviously still playing really aggressive. Usually, I’m trying to step in a little bit more, take the ball early, look to come in. I think with clay, I realized with the bad bounces, the lines, it’s not really a true bounce all the time. I can stand back a little bit and still play aggressive, just kind of adjust my margins.

“I think that’s something we adjusted coming into Rome. Is it perfectly how I want to play? Not really. I think it’s working. I’m still trying to stay aggressive and hit out. I’m just giving myself a little bit more time if there’s a bad bounce. I’m not timing the ball well on the clay. I’m never really going to be like a true clay-court er. I still think I can do well on the surface given my game. Gives me a lot of time to set up for my shots, which I like.”

Serena will be back next week in Parma