Nadal Begins Chase For 11th Italian Crown With Win Over Isner

Rafael Nadal (photo: Giampiero Sposito, Internazionali BNL d’Italia)

ROME/WASHINGTON, May 11, 2022 (by Michael Dickens)

Rafael Nadal has never experienced a losing streak on his beloved clay. He’s garnered a 44-0 win-loss record in his next match on clay after a defeat.

The 35-year-old Spaniard, five days removed from suffering a surprising quarterfinal loss to Carlos Alcaraz in Madrid, was back on court to begin his chase toward an 11th title at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia Wednesday afternoon. He desired to get back in the win column – and did.

The 10-time Italian winner and defending champion kept big-serving John Isner of the United States at bay after he saved two break points at 3-3 in the opening set and won 6-3, 6-1 in one hour and 16 minutes on Court Centrale.

Nadal’s 69th Roman victory in 76 career matches in the Italian capital city advanced him to face No. 13 seed Denis Shapovalov of Canada in his pursuit of a 37th Masters 1000 title. Nadal and Shapovalov met in last year’s Rome semifinals, in which the Spaniard saved two match points and won in a deciding tie-break after three hours and 27 minutes.

During his post-match interview after beating Isner, Nadal said a key turning point during his eighth lifetime tour-level win over the 27th-ranked American was his ability to hold serve in the seventh game of the first set.

“I finished better than how I started, without a doubt,” he said. “The beginning of the match was not good for me.

“He had some chances on the return and had two break points. [He had] two not difficult balls so I was in his hands at that moment. I was lucky that he missed those shots and then I was able to break. Then the match changed, of course. With the first set on board, and having the break in the first game of the second [set], everything changed.”

Nadal did a good job of handling Isner’s huge serve – the American managed just one service ace – and won 49 percent (23 of 47) of his return points. Meanwhile, Nadal converted four of six break points and saved the only two he faced from Isner. He outpointed his opponent 58-38.

The Rome tournament is Nadal’s second after Madrid following his six-week respite to heal a fractured rib suffered during the final at Indian Wells in early March.

Zverev rebounds from Madrid heartbreak with win over determined Baez

Alexander Zverev proved that it doesn’t matter if you score more points than your opponent, only that you score the last point. He did just that.

Wednesday afternoon at Foro Italico, the World No. 3 and second seed from Germany fought off a determined Estoril Open champion Sebastian Baez of Argentina and won 7-6 (6), 6-3 on Court Centrale in an hour and 28 minutes to advance to the third round. The loss ended an eight-match winning streak by Baez.

Zverev raised the level of his game against the 37th-ranked qualifier Baez as he continues to look for his first Tour title of the year after losing the Mutua Madrid Open title – his 10th ATP Masters 1000 final –to Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz on Sunday.

Following his 22nd win in 30 outings this season, Zverev said in his on-court interview that he was “very pleased” after coming from Madrid to Rome. “It’s not always easy because Madrid is at altitude and the balls are flying like crazy, but here everything is pretty slow.

“It wasn’t an easy match and I’m happy with the way I played at the end. He played three matches already here, it’s my first. So, I’m happy with the win.”

Although Baez outscored Zverev 60-59, the German No. 1 contributed 24 winners to 28 unforced errors and converted the only break point he gained against the Argentine, who had 17 winners and 11 unforced errors. Meanwhile, Zverev faced no break points and won 79 percent (38 of 48) of his first-serve points.

“At the end of the day, I feel like I’d did nothing wrong,” Zverev said. “I got a little bit unlucky, made one unforced error with my overhead, but those are not easy shots either. In the end, you have to fight until the very last moment – and the first set was [very important] for me.”

Next, Zverev will play No. 22 Alex de Minaur of Australia, who advanced with a 7-5, 6-4 win over No. 34 Tommy Paul of the United States. De Minaur outpointed Paul 71-58.

Tsitsipas finds his way in crucial moments to beat Dimitrov

Fourth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas brought a 4-1 career head-to-head into his second-round match against No. 20 Grigor Dimitrov on Grand Stand Arena. A win by the World No. 5 Tsitsipas would equal Carlos Alcaraz with his 28th ATP Tour victory.

After two hours and 38 minutes – and 21 minutes after he saved the first of two match points he faced – Tsitsipas prevailed over Dimitrov, 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (4), to earn win No. 28. After racing to a 5-0 lead in the tie-break, he hit an overhead smash winner at 6-4 to put away the victory on his first match-point opportunity. Then, Tsitsipas raised his arms and saluted the crowd, showing a look of satisfaction mixed with relief that he had persevered.

During his on-court interview, Tsitsipas was still processing his triumph. “Incredible fight. I’m extremely happy I was able to overcome this obstacle,” he said. “Grigor played really well, gave me a hard time on the court.

“Just so many emotions. The fact that I was able to process all of that and come back stronger in the third-set tie-break, it was such a great way to redeem myself after not being able to hold in that last game of the second set.”

Indeed, Tsitsipas was up a break at 5-4 and serving for the match in the second set when he was broken at love by Dimitrov, who won four straight games and 16 of 17 points to send the match to a decider. However, Tsitsipas found his way at the end and pulled out the victory.

Tsitsipas and Dimitrov are no strangers. They’ve met often on clay this spring – and the Greek star has eliminated the Bulgarian in each of their past two tournaments, at the Barcelona Open Blanc Sabadell and last week in Madrid. Now, make it three in a row after Wednesday’s outcome, which came on the warmest day of the tournament as the mercury hit 26º Celsius (78º degrees Fahrenheit).

Next, Tsitsipas will play No. 24 Karen Khachanov of Russia, who advanced with a 6-4, 2-6, 6-1 win over No. 15 seed Pablo Carreño Busta of Spain in just over two hours on Grand Stand Arena. Khachanov saved seven of nine break points and broke Carreño Busta in three of four tries. He outpointed the Spaniard 82-76 to improve his season win-loss record to 14-11.

Sinner shines in Court Centrale spotlight

Italian friends and rivals Fabio Fognini and Jannik Sinner went head-to-head for the first time in a generational battle that highlighted Wednesday’s evening session on Court Centrale.

While the 34-year-old Fognini came in two wins shy of reaching 400 for his career, the 20-year-old 10th seed Sinner was fast approaching his 100th triumph. He achieved the milestone with a 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 victory in two hours and two minutes. Sinner put away his 23rd win of the season on his first match point and it was his sixth career victory in Rome.

Sinner struck 19 winners, converted five of nine break points and outpointed the tempestuous Fognini 80-69 to advance to Thursday’s third round against No. 54 Filip Krajinovic of Serbia.

“It was a tough one for sure. I tried to play my best tennis, especially in the important points,” Sinner said during his on-court interview. “In the second set, he raised his level and played better than me. In the third set, it was a little bit of a rollercoaster. Fortunately, I did a good job in the final set to manage to break him first. This, for sure, was the key.”

Around Foro Italico

• Lucky loser Marcos Giron of the United States celebrated with a victory lap high-fiving fans in Pietrangeli after defeating No. 12 seed Diego Schwartzman of Argentina, 6-1, 7-6 (4), in an hour and 52 minutes.

The 60th-ranked American secured victory with a backhand winner, one of 26 winners he hit during the second-round match. Giron made just 12 unforced errors and benefited from 29 unforced errors by Schwartzman. Giron outpointed his opponent 76-55 to advance against No. 8 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada.

• No. 38 Jenson Brooksby of the United States hit six aces and outpointed No. 48 David Goffin of Belgium en route to an easy 6-0, 7-6 (1) win in an hour and 45 minutes on Court 1. The victory advanced the 21-year-old American to the third round against No. 5 seed Casper Ruud of Norway.

Stan Wawrinka continued his comeback from two left foot surgeries and beat No. 59 Laslo Djere of Serbia, 7-6 (8), 3-6, 6-4, in two hours and 48 minutes on Pietrangeli. It was the 37-year-old Swiss star’s 535th career victory. His back-to-back wins in Rome this week are his first in 15 months. The 361st-ranked Wawrinka will face World No. 1 and top seed Novak Djokovic in Thursday’s third round. He’s the lowest-ranked player to reach the Rome third round since No. 411 Corrado Borroni in 1995.

“Tonight was a big fight. [There was] big support from the fans, it’s always something special,” Wawrinka said during his on-court interview. “At my age, after all I’ve done in my career, that’s one of the main reasons why I’m still playing. It’s to get the chance to play in front of the fans.”

• No. 23 Marin Cilic of Croatia upset No. 9 seed Cameron Norrie of Great Britain, 5-7, 6-2, 6-1, in two hours and five minutes on Grand Stand Arena to wrap up Wednesday evening’s play. Cilic hit nine aces and 41 total winners, including 26 from the forehand side and outpointed the World No. 11 94-70. Cilic put away his 18th career Rome victory on his fourth match-point opportunity with a fifth-shot volley winner coming into the net. Next, Cilic will play No. 45 Cristian Garin of Chile.

• No. 1 doubles seeds Rajeev Ram of the United States and Joe Salisbury of Great Britain, finalists in Rome last year, were upset by Lloyd Glasspool of Great Britain and Harri Heliovaara of Finland, 7-6 (5), 6-3, in the opening round. Meanwhile, defending Rome champions and this year’s No. 3 seeds, Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic of Croatia, advanced with a 7-5, 7-5 win over Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria and Hubert Hurkacz of Poland.

Wednesday’s Internazionali BNL d’Italia results

Thursday’s Internazionali BNL d’Italia order of play

By the numbers

Rafael Nadal is 19-0 against Americans on clay, having only been forced to play a deciding set twice – both times against John Isner (five sets at Roland Garros in 2011 and three sets at Monte-Carlo in 2015).

“Quotable …”

“It’s like playing in the Colosseum. There’s so much energy coming from the crowd. I think the people that came today to watch the match were so into it. It made for a great atmosphere and a great gladiator kind of environment on the court.”

– World No. 5 and fourth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, commenting on the atmosphere on Grand Stand Arena, where he defeated Grigor Dimitrov in a three-set battle Wednesday afternoon.