Rome: Nadal slides and slithers and scrambles his way past ShapovalovBy May 13, 2021
Debating best-of-three sets vs. best-of-fiveBy May 21, 2021
The Tennis Conversation: Tim HenmanBy May 21, 2021
The Pick: Lorenzo Musetti vs. Sebastian Korda, ATP Lyon second roundBy May 18, 2021
In Geneva, Roger Federer loses clay-court comeback to Pablo AndujarBy May 18, 2021
The Pick: Jannik Sinner vs. Aslan Karatsev, ATP Lyon first roundBy May 17, 2021
Officials deny that 2022 Australian Open could moveBy May 17, 2021
Week in Preview: Serena, Federer lead stars tuning up for French OpenBy May 17, 2021
Nadal finds the final answer for Djokovic in roller coaster Rome finalBy May 16, 2021
Rafael Nadal battles past Novak Djokovic to win Rome for 10th timeBy May 16, 2021
Rome: Nadal slides and slithers and scrambles his way past Shapovalov
When does Rafael Nadal stop being the favorite in a clay-court match? How about never? How Rafa staged a Roman revival Thursday to beat Denis Shapovalov, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (3), at the Foro Italico.
Published May 13, 2021
When does Rafael Nadal officially become the underdog in a match on clay? When he’s down a set? A set and a break? A set and nearly two breaks? Match point?
How about never?
To anyone who watched Nadal’s wild and woolly 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (3) comeback win over Denis Shapovalov in Rome on Thursday, that last answer must seem like the correct one. Rafa trailed by all of the above scores, and yet still managed to slide and slither and scramble his way to a victory in three and a half hours.
It’s the last stat—three and a half hours—that may be the most impressive. Late on Wednesday, Nadal had finished off another tough match against another tough young opponent, Jannik Sinner. When Rafa came back out less than 20 hours later, he looked less than completely ready. Shapovalov quickly took advantage, breaking Nadal in the opening game, breaking him again for 3-0, and then breaking him to start the second set.
Shapo was flying around the court; Rafa was trudging. Shapo was slinging his forehand into the corners for winners; Rafa was trying to get the ball past the service line. The Canadian is a lefty, and he took full advantage of that fact, forcing Nadal deep into his forehand corner, and not letting him backpedal for the inside-out forehands that he loves.
Tennis fans everywhere waited for the turnaround. For a millisecond, it looks like it wasn’t going to happen. Down 0-3 in the second set, Nadal went for broke on a couple of shots, instead of digging in and grinding. I wondered if he had pulled the ripcord and was going to get an early start on his Paris preparations. I should have known better. Instead, Nadal saved a break point to avoid going down 0-4, and and then broke Shapovalov from 40-0 down. You could see the tide shifting in the score, and in the shots: Now it was Nadal who was swinging freely and whipping forehand winners; now it was Shapovalov who was making tentative unforced errors.
But credit Shapovalov for not crumbling entirely. After Nadal won the second set, the two see-sawed through a third set that was brilliant, wearying, and thoroughly unpredictable all at once. Chances were earned, and chances were squandered, by both players. Shapovalov had an early lead but couldn’t hold it. Nadal had opportunities to break late but couldn’t cash them in.
Finally, Shapovalov reached match point, twice, with Nadal serving at 5-6. On the first one, he sent a backhand long, on the second, he shanked a forehand straight up in the air. He had made it to the finish line, but he couldn’t swing his arm across it. Shapo had hit a wall, of his own making and Nadal’s. In the deciding tiebreaker, he kept going for more, and he kept missing.
“To be able to win these kinds of matches against young players give me confidence with my body,” Nadal said referring to this victory, and his equally long win over Stefanos Tsitsipas in the Barcelona final. “It’s true that I have to do things better for tomorrow.”
Nadal didn’t reach his top level in this one, the way he did against Sinner the night before. He did improve as the match went on, but rather than storming to a comeback victory, he needed some good fortune to survive and advance. Now he’ll have to do it all over again on Friday.
“The main thing today for me is recover physically, no?” Nadal said. “Have been a positive victory for me. I fighted until the end a lot to be in quarterfinals. Tomorrow is a chance to play a quarterfinals match. I hope to be ready to compete well.”
“Let’s see how I wake up tomorrow morning.”
One thing we know is that Nadal won’t be out of it until the final point has been played.