(Photo credit: REUTERS/Tony Gentile)
Nadal continues his quest for an eighth Italian Open crown in Rome with Denis Shapovalov, the Canadian teenager who will become his country’s top-ranked player when the rankings are released next week, standing in his way. Nadal’s winning run of 50 sets was snapped last week in Madrid by Dominic Thiem, but though his aura of invincibility may have been a little dimmed, it is still a long way from being extinguished. Shapovalov, meanwhile, has been playing some impressive clay court tennis. Who will come out on top?
Nadal and Shapovalov have met just once so far in their careers, perhaps unsurprisingly when Shapovalov’s age is considered. But that first meeting was memorable indeed, coming as it did during Shapovalov’s thrilling, arguably career-making run, to the semifinals in Montreal last year. Nadal was his third round opponent, and the Canadian came into the match in good spirits having delighted the crowd by saving match points against da Silva in the first round and beating del Potro in the second.
But whilst those wins were impressive, Nadal presented an altogether sterner test. The Spaniard had won his fifteenth Slam in Paris earlier that year and would add a sixteenth to his tally in New York later that summer. And it was Nadal who made the first move in the match, breaking the Canadian midway through the opening set and sealing it shortly after. But ‘Shapo’ roared back into contention, breaking through in the second and levelling the match. He then played a nerveless decider to win it in a tiebreak and seal the biggest win of his career.
Path to the third round
Nadal came into Rome this year smarting from being on the receiving end of a fairly one-sided defeat at the hands of Dominic Thiem in Madrid, a loss that cost him his #1 ranking. It was perhaps then an unfortunate time to come across the great man as Damir Dzumhur found out to his cost. The Bosnian, as ever, put in a good effort, but he was outclassed from start to finish by Nadal, who hit through his defences with ease. The world #2 lost just one game as he reached the third round a 6-1 6-0 winner.
Shapovalov faced a difficult start to life in his debut in Rome as he was drawn against Tomas Berdych, the Czech Republic’s former world #4 and Wimbledon finalist. Berdych looked every inch the top ten regular he once was as he took apart Shapovalov in the first set, winning it 6-1. But Shapovalov dug deep and Berdych’s level faltered. The teenager fought his way back into the contest, eventually turning it around to win 1-6 6-3 7-6. He then picked up another hard fought win against Robin Haase, prevailing in three 7-6 6-7 6-3.
How do they match up?
Shapovalov’s success so far this clay court season has come from his ability to dictate rallies. The Canadian has been hitting both his forehand and backhand with real venom and he has been finding the court with sufficient consistency to win matches, having triumphed in six of his last seven. But against Nadal, he will be coming up against a player significantly harder to hit through than anyone he has yet faced on the clay in his career.
And whilst Nadal can defend arguably as well as anyone who has ever played the game, he also has plenty of attacking options to draw on. His forehand is particularly dangerous. The Spaniard hits it heavy with topspin, which makes it even harder to deal with on a clay court than on other surfaces. In Shapovalov’s favour at least, is that he is also a left-hander. That will deny Nadal the opportunity to play his favoured pattern of using his crosscourt forehand to break down an opponent’s backhand.
As well as Shapovalov has played on the clay over the past two weeks, it is hard to imagine him walking away with the win from this match. Nadal has the quality to soak up the pressure that Shapovalov will look to apply and the weapons to hurt his opponent. That’s a rare combination of qualities and one that the Canadian has not yet been confronted with. It will be too much for him. Nadal to win through in straight sets.