When Rafael Nadal was young, his all-knowing uncle Toni convinced him that he could make the skies open up with rain on command. Maybe Toni, after he retired from the road last year, transferred his powers to his brother Miguel Angel. How else to explain what transpired in the third set of Rafa’s 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 win over Alexander Zverev in Rome on Sunday?
This past week, Miguel Angel, a former professional football player, made a relatively rare appearance in the Nadal player box. And with Rafa down 1-3 in the third set and seemingly out of answers against Zverev, a storm conveniently swept across the Foro Italico, forcing a prolonged delay in play. When that delay was over, Nadal had answers again. He charged through the last five games for his eighth title in Rome, and reclaimed the No. 1 ranking in the process.
Miguel Angel’s presence aside, Rafa rightly said that it wasn’t the break in play that made the difference, but what he did with it.
“When it happened, delay, the rain delay, I didn’t feel in that moment that it would help me,” Nadal said. “But really, in my opinion, what helped me is that I came back with a clear idea in terms of tactical issues and in terms of decisions that I take after that break.”
WATCH: Nadal's second championship point in Rome, against Zverev
I had wondered if one of those tactical decisions would be to finally move up in the court a little for his service returns. A week ago in the Madrid final, Zverev had taken advantage of Dominic Thiem’s similarly deep return position, and by the third set of the Rome final, he was having his way with Nadal, too, moving forward unimpeded and using his 6’6” frame to knock off Rafa’s suddenly tame topspin forehands.
But while Rafa stayed deep in the court, he made an effort to hit his returns longer.
“The second serve, he was able to hit the first ball with perfect position,” Nadal said of Zverev’s domination early in the third set. “And I was just running to save the points. And when I came back, I believe I started to return again much higher and longer.”
Everything flowed from there. His deeper, higher returns forced Zverev back, which allowed Nadal to push his way forward and take command of the rallies again. Down the stretch, his flat two-handed backhand approaches were as skiddingly effective as they’ve ever been. Rafa’s doubts, it seemed, had blown away with the clouds.
In some ways, this match was a microcosm of the clay season so far, and a fitting way to send it to Paris. Nadal started out on fire, playing what he even was willing to call his best set of tennis on clay in 2018. His drop shots were deadly, and his forehand passes deadlier, as he broke Zverev every time he served.
Then, at the start of the second set, the young German began to show what he could do, and why he’s not someone Nadal can run roughshod over, even on clay. He began by making a long-range drop shot that Rafa said “probably even exist,” and held serve. Soon Zverev was the one snapping off forehand winners, and Nadal was the one shanking the ball into the stands. The sky grew dark, the conditions slowed, and Rafa’s shots slowed with them; suddenly he found himself struggling to avoid getting bageled. Zverev came in having won two straight tournaments, and 13 straight matches, over the last 19 days. Was he going to sneak past Rafa in Rome and potentially make himself a co-favorite for Roland Garros?
“I think this week is the most, actually, satisfying,” said Zverev, who spent much of this tournament playing late into the night. “Because even when I was tired, still found a way against great players...And you know, I was not far away from beating Rafa on a clay court in a Masters final. So I guess I can take that to Paris.”
In the end, though, those late nights caught up to him; Zverev wasn’t ready to fight off a freshly charging Rafa after the rain delay.
“He came out way faster and played much more aggressive than I did,” Zverev said. “And the fatigue I had over the last—because of over the last few weeks, because of the break, it took me a very long time to get activated again and to get going. Obviously it wasn’t enough time.”
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Nadal and Zverev were both asked, naturally, what this match means going to Paris. And just as naturally, they didn’t really want to think about it yet. Zverev said he’ll talk about Roland Garros when he gets there, and while Rafa conceded that going into a Slam with a win is always a positive, everything starts anew in Paris anyway. It’s not like he doesn’t know how to win there by now, whatever the cicrumstances.
Nadal focused instead on how much it means to win in Rome again. Incredibly, he hadn’t been past the quarterfinals at the Foro since 2014, and hadn’t won the title there since 2013—a virtually unthinkable dry spell for Rafa on dirt. Watching him win his eighth title in Rome reminded me of his early five-set epics there, against Guillermo Coria and Roger Federer, in the 2005 and 2006 finals. In those days, many saw Nadal as just the latest in a long line of clay-court specialists, sluggers who ground their opponents into the red dust.
What we should have realized is that while young Rafa could grind, he also had the full repertoire of shots. In reality, he was a clay-court artist, rather than simply a specialist, and his game would eventually translate to every surface. But it’s not too late to appreciate his racquet skills. In the third set on Sunday, Nadal took an excellent Zverev lob, one that appeared destined to get over his head, and knifed it away with a leaping skyhook overhead while looking in the other direction. That’s no baseline grinder’s shot; that’s a born tennis player’s shot, an artist’s shot.
Thirteen years after he first won in Rome, and a few weeks before his 32nd birthday, Nadal can still take the best shot from the new generation’s best player, and come up with something better.
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