(Photo credit: REUTERS/Tony Gentile)
In a clash between the two form players so far this clay court season, ten-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal seeks to reclaim the world #1 ranking and the Italian Open crown. Standing in his way is the current holder, Alexander Zverev of Germany, who brings a 13-match long winning streak that includes victories in the final in Munich and Madrid into the match. But will it be the king of clay or the rising star who claims the title?
Zverev has wins against Federer and Djokovic, indeed, he’s beaten both in Masters 1000 finals. But so far a win against Nadal has eluded him, despite the German having had four cracks at him. In the first match, two years ago in Indian Wells, Zverev came close to scoring what would have been a memorable win in the round of 16. He took the first set on a tiebreak and came to within a point of victory in the decider, but ultimately fell 7-6 0-6 5-7.
Nadal defeated him again nearly a year later in Melbourne in a five-set thriller in the third round. The German, then still a teenager, battled valiantly throughout. However, Nadal just had too much guile and experience, and more in his legs, eventually progressing 4-6 6-3 6-7 6-3 6-2. When the pair next met in Monte Carlo, later that year, Nadal destroyed Zverev 6-1 6-1 in the third round. He defeated Zverev again in the Davis Cup quarterfinal tie between Germany and Spain earlier this year in straight sets.
Path to the final
Nadal, top seed in Rome, began his tournament in the second round against Damir Dzumhur. The Spaniard put the disappointment of his defeat to Thiem in Madrid behind him with a thumping win in which he dropped just one game. He then overcame some spirited early resistance from Denis Shapovalov to avenge the loss he took from the Canadian in Montreal last year, 6-4 6-1. Nadal then recovered from dropping the opening set against Fognini to win in three, 4-6 6-1 6-2.
That set up a 51st clash with Novak Djokovic, who had won 26 of their previous meetings. That included inflicting nearly a fifth of all Nadal’s clay court defeats. The first set proved to be a classic, as Djokovic reeled in Nadal, who had broken early on. The two all-time greats were bringing some of their best tennis, but it was Nadal who found it when in mattered most, winning the set in a tiebreak. The second set didn’t quite live up to the first as Nadal kept the pressure on Djokovic and won it 6-3.
Zverev, who as the second seed also received a first round bye, first faced the Italian wildcard Matteo Berrettini, defeating him 7-5 6-2. He then edged past Kyle Edmund 7-5 7-6 despite squandering eight match points. He dropped his first set since the Munich second round against David Goffin, but beat the Belgian in a late night thriller all-the-same, coming back from a break down in the decider to do it. He then defeated Cilic in a closely fought match, in which the first set went to an epic 28 point tiebreak. Zverev won that, and the second 7-5 to advance.
How do they match up?
Zverev faces arguably the most difficult challenge in all of tennis in pursuit of his second Italian Open crown in succession. That challenge is hitting through Nadal. The Spaniard remains an astonishingly good defender on a clay court, presenting a brick wall to opponents. And Zverev will face him in good heart. Nadal must have been delighted in having successfully gone toe-to-toe with Djokovic and left his great rival knocked down in the dust of Campo Centrale.
Zverev, however, will doubtless approach this match rather differently than the Serbian. Whilst Djokovic trusted in his ability to match Nadal in prolonged baseline exchanges, ultimately incorrectly, Zverev is unlikely to entertain much faith in that as a path to victory. Rather Zverev must trust in his formidable array of attacking weapons, particularly his powerful backhand. However, Nadal can do plenty of damage himself, with his famous forehand and increasingly potent two-hander.
Defeat to Thiem aside, Nadal’s clay court season has been one of unbroken success, success that will continue at Zverev’s expense. Thiem won that match by going, effectively, for broke throughout and it coming off more often than not. Zverev could in theory do the same, but like Thiem he has no more than a puncher’s chance. And Nadal doesn’t suffer knockouts very often. The Spaniard will complete the perfect preparation for another assault on the Roland Garros crown and return to the #1 ranking with a straight sets win.