These days tennis may look the same on clay as it does on the other surfaces, but one glance at Wednesday’s results in Rome should be enough to tell you that it’s not, and likely never will be. Naomi Osaka, Daniil Medvedev, and Serena Williams, each of whom reached the semifinals or better at the Australian Open a few months ago, struggled with the dirt and the breeze at the Foro Italico before making early exits. Medvedev, who ranted his way to a straight-set defeat against Aslan Karatsev, made his feelings about la terre battue clear: “This is a very bad surface,” he said. “How can I not swear?”

Fortunately, before Medvedev could have the courts paved over with asphalt, Rafael Nadal arrived to remind everyone how it’s done on dirt. He and Jannik Sinner closed out the day’s matches with a highly anticipated prime-time showdown. The King of Clay vs. Italy’s future superstar: It didn’t disappoint. Nadal won 7-5, 6-4, but the two-hour match was closer and more entertaining than the scores indicated.

Sinner started aggressively and confidently. He took the ball on the rise and powered his 80+ m.p.h. ground strokes into the corners and at sharp angles. He broke Rafa twice in the early going, once with a backhand winner, once with a volley winner.

This led Tennis Channel commentator Jim Courier to ask a question that has been asked about Nadal’s clay-court opponents hundreds of times before: “Can he (Sinner) sustain that without making a slew of unforced errors?” It has been asked of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Dominic Thiem—anyone who has pushed Rafa around the court and taken a lead against him. Now it was being asked of Sinner.

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With "big respect" for Jannik Sinner, Rafa Nadal meets Rome challenge

With "big respect" for Jannik Sinner, Rafa Nadal meets Rome challenge

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The answer is almost always no, of course, but that wasn’t exactly the case with Sinner today. He didn’t continue to belt winners and break serve, but he also didn’t make a slew of errors. This was a match that was won by Nadal, rather than lost by Sinner.

Nadal won it by disrupting the rallies and giving Sinner different looks. He won it by stepping forward instead of retreating behind the baseline. He won it with drop shots, exposing a slight deficiency in Sinner’s up-and-back movement. He won it by coming up with first serves on big points. He won it by adding a little more hook to his crosscourt forehand, which opened up the down the line. He won it with a topspin lob and a perfectly measured backhand pass at 6-5 in the first set. And he won it by raising his game in the second set and out-hitting Sinner. During that stretch, for the first time in 2021, Nadal looked like he does when he’s dominating at Roland Garros.

“Have been a positive match for me, no?” Nadal said. “I did a lot of things well. I played a solid match…Yeah, very pleased with the victory.”

“I think I tried to do well, no, because I hold well, not going back too far from the court,” he said. “If not, you are dead. I think I [held] well the position on court. I hit some very good forehands, crosscourts too to avoid his great backhand cross, and then he has a great change down the line, no? So I think I did that well.”

With "big respect" for Jannik Sinner, Rafa Nadal meets Rome challenge

With "big respect" for Jannik Sinner, Rafa Nadal meets Rome challenge

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Instead of the match hinging on Sinner’s ability to sustain his level, it hinged on something else Courier said: “Nadal isn’t just a one-trick pony.” In all of the talk about Nadal’s intensity and mental strength, his skill level—his ability to do the little things well, to use his instincts, to remember the fundamentals—often gets lost.

This was a day when hitting through Sinner, or even hitting with Sinner, appeared to be a daunting task. So Nadal went around him instead. He didn’t let him take the big cuts from the middle of the court that he loves to take. He used the drop shot, but he also followed it to net himself, the way you’re taught. That paid off when Sinner was serving at 5-6: Rafa hit a drop and moved forward, Sinner hit a very good redrop, but Nadal was there in time to knife a pass down the line.

“I was on court with big respect for him and very focused every single moment,” Nadal said. “That’s why I am here with a victory.”

Nadal will have a quick turnaround against Denis Shapovalov on Thursday afternoon. I’m tempted to ask: Now that he has found his Roland Garros form, can Rafa sustain it? But I won’t ask it, because we already know the answer.

With "big respect" for Jannik Sinner, Rafa Nadal meets Rome challenge

With "big respect" for Jannik Sinner, Rafa Nadal meets Rome challenge