Additional reporting from Kamakshi Tandon.
Rafael Nadal served up a storm to beat Denis Shapovalov in straight sets at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome on Thursday, avenging a loss to the rising star in their only previous meeting in Canada last summer.
In that previous meeting, in the round of 16 of the ATP Masters 1000 tournament in Montreal, the two broke each other twice in a two-hour, 46-minute mini-marathon before Shapovalov prevailed, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (4). But today on clay, Nadal's home court, the story was completely different, with the veteran breaking the 19-year-old's serve four times—and not facing a single break point the whole match—in a 6-4, 6-1 victory.
The contest offered promise of dramatics early on, with both players holding serve in the first six games. That was the moment Nadal pounced, drawing first blood with a break. After closing the first set out a few games later, the 31-year-old broke at love in the first game of the second set and never looked back.
In all, Nadal won 10 of the last 12 games of the one-hour-and-22-minute match. Nadal was nearly flawless on serve, barely losing points—five, in total—over eight service games.
“It was a tough first set,” Nadal said afterwards. “I had 15-40 and a couple of break points in the first game, 15-40 and a couple of break points in the next game when I was returning, and then everything was coming a little bit tougher. But I’m just happy for the victory against a difficult opponent today.”
MATCH POINT—Nadal d. Shapovalov:
While Shapovalov's run in Rome is over, the teenager, fresh off a semifinal showing in Madrid, feels much more comfortable on tour, less than a year after he broke onto the tennis scene.
"I started traveling to all these ATP events, I kind of, you know, got a little bit homesick," said Shapovalov this week in Rome. "First of all, I felt like I didn't belong with these guys. I felt like, yeah, I had two good tournaments but I don't know if my level's, you know, there yet. And all my friends were to university, you know, finishing high school.
"I felt like I was already beginning a career with pro players and everyone so much older than me. So it was not so easy to fit in."
Shapovalov was playing mostly challengers and qualifying until his breakthrough 2017 run to the semifinals of Montreal, which was followed by a fourth round appearance in the US Open. That got him plenty of wild cards into ATP tournaments for the rest of the season, but he won just one match in four events.
But a change in approach has helped him resume his climb, which includes a 17-12 record this season.
"I sat down with my team and I kind of knew what to expect this season," he said. "I took a bit of a break and sat down in the off-season I realized, like, this is my job, this is what I chose to do."
"I started enjoying it. I started enjoying all the media, everything. Going to different cities every week. And, to be honest now, I'm really enjoying the tour."
Nadal moves onto the quarterfinals of Rome for the 13th time in 14 career appearances. He’s a seven-time champion at the Foro Italico (2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013), though he’s lost in the quarterfinal stage in each of the last three years. And his opponent is someone who has occasionally troubled him in the past, Fabio Fognini.
The Italian advanced over Peter Gojowczyk, 6-4 6-4, and will of course have the Rome crowd on his side on Friday. Fognini, who took out one of Nadal’s toughest potential opponents, Madrid conqueror Dominic Thiem, on Wednesday, has three career wins over the world No. 2. They all came in 2015, at Rio de Janeiro and Barcelona on clay, and at the US Open.
Still, Nadal leads their head-to-head 10-3, and has won their last five meetings in a row.
“Fabio’s a great player, a big talent and he’s playing at home, so it will be a tough one,” Nadal said.
“We’ll see how things go and I hope to be ready for it.”
ATP Rome (5/13 - 5/20)
-Tennis Channel Plus features five courts of live action from the Internazionali BNL d'Italia beginning Sunday, May 13 at 5:00 am ET!