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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