Rome Masters 2018: Rafael Nadal beats Zverev to win No8 – and with it, No1 in the world
Rafael Nadal beats Alexander Zverev 6-1 1-6 6-3 to win the Rome Masters title for an eighth time and regain the number one ranking
The odds on the clay of one of the finest arenas in tennis, the centre court at the Foro Italico, looked firmly in favour of the seven-time champion, Rafael Nadal.
He picked up his 11th titles in both Monte-Carlo and Barcelona, and reached the quarters in Madrid last week, and he had not lost a set since the start of his 10th French Open campaign last June until facing Dominic Thiem in Madrid.
His record in Rome also spoke volumes: He had never missed the tournament since winning the first of his seven at his very first attempt in 2005. He made the finals twice more, to stack up a 51-6 tally, and by the time he had survived a three-set test from Fabio Fognini and then an intense challenge from Novak Djokovic in the semis, he was 55-6.
But the milestones and statistics continued to pile up.
He was already 18-1 in this year’s clay season, and he had never lost a semi-final in this tournament.
He came into the final having overtaken Roger Federer in Masters match-wins, 356, and was looking to extend his all-time record for Masters titles to 32.
Should he win in Rome, he would overtake John McEnroe’s tally of 77 titles to sit at fourth in the record books behind Jimmy Connors, Federer and Ivan Lendl.
There was one more small incentive to win this last match before embarking on the defence of his French Open title. If he should win, he would reclaim the No1 ranking from Federer once again. He said, though, that it was not important:
“If I am back to No1, it’s great. Better than to be No2, it’s true. [But] my motivation is to win a title and I am playing for this tomorrow.”
The odds were stacked in Nadal’s favour for another reason. His opponent, the No2 seed Alexander Zverev, had lost all four previous matches, two of them on clay, both of which he lost in straight sets.
Zverev had got the dirty end of the stick in the scheduling, too: Three times he had played a night match—indeed his quarter-final against David Goffin did not begin on Friday until 11pm. Now he had to acclimatise to warm and dry conditions in super-quick time, and against the greatest ever to play on clay. Nadal, in contrast, had played all four of his matches in the afternoon—and would do so again in the final.
There would be another factor: fatigue.
The Spaniard was surely fresher this year as he entered ‘his’ season than he had ever been. Never before had he arrived on clay fully rested since the Australian Open. His absence had been forced by injury, but perhaps it was also a blessing in disguise for Nadal’s French Open and No1 ambitions.
In comparison, Zverev was on a 13-match streak through title runs in Munich and Madrid, having also made the semis in Monte-Carlo—and that on the back of a final run at the Miami Masters plus two matches in Davis Cup. And he was, in truth, looking increasingly weary through the defence of his Rome title. He dug deep to beat Marin Cilic in the semis, but needed treatment on his right shoulder to seal his 30th win of the year—more than any other player so far in 2018.
But the super German, who turned 21 only last month, assured his No2 ranking for Roland Garros with that win, and took the top ranking in the Race to London.
And while he had lost to Nadal each time thus far, he had tasted near-victory while still a teenager in Indian Wells, and came within touching distance of beating the great Spaniard in the Australian Open last year: he led by two sets to one before losing in five.
Even so, this would be an uphill task for the German. All the more so when he was slow to respond to the dominating tennis of his opponent after the opening game. Zverev got an immediate break, but Nadal pounced straight back, breaking to love, and then twice breaking again to storm through the set, 6-1.
By now, though, Zverev’s energy levels and movement were improving as he worked his way into the match. He held serve at last to open the second set, and then swiftly broke Nadal. Another love hold, and the German was at 3-0 and finding the range of the court with his superlative backhand.
He began to throw in drop shots, broke the Spaniard’s rhythm with some net attacks, and served with pace and precision. And it seemed to throw Nadal out of kilter. Now he was the one slow to respond, and though he fought off two break points in the fourth game, he could not respond to a brilliant stun volley and then a backhand winning pass. It was another break, followed by a confident hold from Zverev with an ace, 5-0.
Nadal did get one game, but it took barely half an hour for the German to seal the set, 6-1.
But all that was about to change. Zverev carried his momentum and superior ball-striking into the third set, as Nadal continued to look off the pace—a rare sight indeed.
However Rome was about to deliver her trump card to proceedings. There is barely a year goes by at the Foro Italico when black crowds do not rush in and dump some rain on these courts, and it did just that.
The drizzle was already falling when Zverev made a quick break with wonderful running forehand pass, and held serve for a 3-1 lead.
But come the fifth game, play was halted for 10 minutes as the crowds rustled and wrestled with waterproofs. These were edgy times for those on and off the court. On resumption, Nadal took to the baseline, double faulted, but held serve by changing it up with two net finishes, 2-3.
And now the rain fell in earnest, the covers were brought on, and the players went off for 45 minutes. Time for Nadal to regroup and review his tactics, time for Zverev’s stiff muscles to perhaps fight back.
Whatever the reasons, the results were soon clear. Nadal returned to his focused and strutting best, ramping up his swinging serve and plunging forehand, while Zverev’s groundstrokes lost their accuracy—and he barely played a net point or drop shot again. From 77 percent of first serves in the second set, his level plunged to 52, and Nadal took full advantage to break twice and win his eighth Rome title after more two hours, 6-3.
So Nadal heads to Paris with a spring in his step and some significant victories under his belt. He beat four-time Rome champion Djokovic, who had beaten him in their last Rome, Roland Garros and Monte-Carlo meetings. He beat Zverev, the defending Rome champion. He beat home favourite Fognini, who had twice beaten him on clay before. And he beat teenage star Denis Shapovalov, who had won their only previous contest in Montreal last summer.
Not a bad haul, then, but best of all, he does indeed rise back to No1 in time for his French Open defence. He may have claimed it mattered little to him before this final, but index fingers raised to the sky as he took the applause of the Rome crowds showed it meant quite a lot.