Nadal’s Expectations For Rome Title Remain Alive

Rafael Nadal (photo: @InteNBLdItalia/Twitter)

ROME/WASHINGTON, May 15, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

When in Rome, do as the Romans do – don’t bet against Rafa Nadal. As it is advisable to follow the conventions while in the Italian capital city, a bet for Nadal to win a semifinal in Rome is a sure thing.

Saturday afternoon, the World No. 3 from Spain extended his unblemished semifinal record in the Internazionali BNL d’Italia to 12-0 with his straight forward 6-4, 6-4 victory over No. 47 Reilly Opelka of the United States. The one hour and 32-minute semifinal moved the King of Clay to within a victory of equaling Novak Djokovic‘s record of 36 ATP Masters 1000 titles.

On Sunday, Nadal will play the World No. 1 Djokovic for the 57th time in their storied rivalry after the Serbian defeated 33rd-ranked Italian favorite Lorenzo Sonego, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-2. Should Nadal prevail against Djokovic, it would be the fourth time he’s reached 10 or more victories in a single tour-level event following his success at Roland Garros (13 titles), Barcelona (12 crowns) and Monte-Carlo (11 championship victories).

Against Opelka, Nadal broke the gentle giant once in each set and he put away match point on his first try when the American hit a forehand return into the net to quash a two-shot rally. It was quite a different circumstance for Nadal when you look back and realize he saved two match points to beat Denis Shapovalov in the third round and fought off nine break points against Alexander Zverev in Friday’s quarterfinals. After saving four break points early in the first set, it was pretty smooth sailing for Nadal the rest of the match as he reserved his place in the Rome final for the 12th time.

During an on-court interview after his win, Nadal gave props to Opelka. “I did the thing that I had to do today. It is not an easy, beautiful match to play and, [against] a player like Reilly, [you aren’t going to] have rhythm. You know you are going to have just a few options on your return and you know he can play very aggressive from the baseline. He has good shots. That is what happened at the beginning of the match. He had some options [for the] break and it was super important for me to save those moments.”

Looking ahead to the final, Nadal said: “The work is done. I’ve done a lot of things well, a good spirit during the week. There’s a lot of positive things I’ve done on the court. It’s important for my confidence to be back in such an important final such as this one. Tomorrow, I’m going to have a tough opponent, but I have to be ready and play my best tennis.”

Djokovic wins twice, reaches 11th Rome final

World No. 1 and top seed Novak Djokovic garnered a pair of victories to reach his 11th Rome final and ninth meeting in the Italian capital city against Rafael Nadal. First, Djokovic hits 42 winners and won his rain-suspended quarterfinal match against World No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas, 4-6, 7-5, 7-5, in three hours and 14 minutes that advanced him to Saturday evening’s semifinal match against No. 33 Lorenzo Sonego. The unseeded Italian from Turin won his rescheduled quarterfinal match against World No. 7 and seventh seed Andrey Rublev, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, in two hours and 34 minutes to advance to the evening’s featured match.

With a pro-Italian crowd very much behind Sonego at Campo Centrale, the five-time Italian Open champion Djokovic was pushed nearly to the limit before winning 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-2 to move into Sunday’s title match. The two shared a very warm hug at the net once the match ended.

Then, Sonego received a hero’s send off as he left Campo Centrale. Djokovic stopped and turned to applaud his proud opponent.

Up a set and a break at 6-5 in the second set, Djokovic held match points against Sonego, but was unable to put the victory away in straight sets. Instead, Djokovic was broken by the Italian who went on to win the set in a tie break 7-5. However, Djokovic reasserted his control by breaking Sonego to go ahead 3-1 and broke, again, in the eighth game to put it away. He won on his third match-point opportunity.

“I have only myself to blame for not closing the match in two sets,” Djokovic said afterward during a post-match TV interview. “At the end of the day, he is showing why he reached his first semifinals. He’s a quality player. Not easy to play against him. Obviously, he had the crowd behind him. It was an electric atmosphere out there on the court.”

Nadal has beaten Djokovic five times in their previous eight meetings in Rome, while Djokovic leads their overall head-to-head 29-27. This will be their sixth meeting in a final in Rome.

“I don’t have much time [to recover],” Djokovic said. “I played a lot of tennis [today]. Hopefully, I’ll have fresh legs because that’s what I definitely will need. It’s necessary in order to have a chance against Rafa.

“He also had some tough matches, obviously myself, with rain delays and everything that has happened today. Hopefully, tomorrow I’ll be fresh and I’ll give it all.”

By the numbers

• According to the ATP website, Rafael Nadal’s semifinal victory meant that he’s become the seventh man in Open Era history to play 500 tour-level matches on clay (he’s 458-42). His 91.6 percent winning percentage – including 61 titles, an 81-match winning streak and a 50-set winning streak – are all Open Era clay-court records.

• Reilly Opelka would have been the first American Masters 1000 finalist on clay since Andre Agassi won Rome in 2002 had he beaten Rafael Nadal on Saturday. Still, Opelka can be proud of his week. He began the tournament on a six-match losing streak and was 2-10 on clay. He won four straight matches to reach his first ATP Masters 1000 semifinal.

• The Djokovic / Nadal rivalry: