Arguably the two best clay court players of 2018 faced off in the Italian Open on Sunday. The clouds were gathering over the beautiful ancient city of Rome, but for whom did they spell doom? It was a fitting scene for the two matadors that enterd the arena: Alexander Zverev, defending champion and world no.3 versus Rafa Nadal, the king of the red dirt.

For Nadal more was on the line that just another clay court Masters 1000 crown. A win also meant he would reclaim the topspot in the ATP Rankings. Zverev would just be happy to be able to finally conquer Nadal on clay. It turned out it was Nadal that would not be denied. After 2 hours and 9 minutes of play Nadal had battled through a 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 win over Zverev in the Italian capital. Here’s how it all happened…

The pair had met four times before with Nadal emerging victorious in all of them. Their last meeting saw Nadal’s return to the world of tennis after his sustained injury against Cilic at the Australian Open ealry January. They locked horns on the Davis Cup stage with Rafa dominating his ten year younger opponent comfortably in straights. But since then Zverev has gone on a succesful run on clay, defeating Nadal’s conqueror in Madrid, Dominic Thiem, emphatically in the final. Zverev possesses the swagger and belief to threaten anyone on any surface, and he’s just 21-years old.

In the semifinals Nadal beat Novak Djokovic in a reprise that saw Djokovic get some of his old form back that he is famous for. Still the 12-time Grand Slam champion lost in straight sets. So did Cilic in his semifinal with Zverev, although especially the first set was a high competitive affair with the German taking it 15-13 in the breaker. It must be said both men were fresh enough heading into this final, and they didn’t disappoint.

The pair happy and ready to go all out

A superb start from Alexander Zverev in the early game. After winning the toss, he elected to receive. Some might question that tactic when wielding a thundering serve like he has. But it paid off. Soon Nadal was looking at 0-40 down. He saved the first two with two well constructed points but had to resign on the third when the young German overpowered him from the baseline.

Nadal wouldn’t be Nadal if he didn’t break straight back. Drawing a good read on the service placement of Zverev resulted in a break to love, sealing it with a dropshot winner off an attempted dropshot from Sascha. Early blows were dealt, and the final was all square at 1-1.

Zverev’s serve, his primary weapon, was letting him down in the fourth game. Nadal was happy to rally from the back of the court until he wore Zverev down with a magnificent inside out forehand. Nadal was in the lead: 3-1.

Nadal celebrates his second break

Playing nearly faultless clay court tennis Nadal earned the double break to go up 5-1 and Zverev had not even managed to hold his own serve up to that point. Very worrying signs for the defending champion. Rafa served out the first set to 15 after just 33 minutes of play. First blood to the Spaniard.

The second set started on a positive note for the Zverev. Finally he managed to hold his own serve to 30 thanks to an audacious dropshot and a backhand smash. Still he had to rally with every point as the world no.2 completely neutralized the defending champion’s service delivery.

Zverev took that new found confidence into the second game, pressuring Nadal with depth from his backhand wing. After failing to convert the first of two breakpoints due to an open court forehand volley miss, Zverev shrug off the disappointment by eliciting the backhand error from Nadal in the next point: 2-0 for Zverev.

Zverev looks on to see where his powerful backhand lands

All of a sudden Zverev’s serve was booming as well and he racked up a most welcome love service hold to stretch his lead to 3-0. It was up to Nadal to mount a fitting response the way only he seems to be able to pull off on clay.

But so far, it was Nadal who was under the gun. Zverev missed yet another open opportunity when he was up 15-40 on the Nadal serve when he netted an easy forehand pass. This time Nadal managed to peg the score back to deuce and the game went into overtime. Zverev’s head was clear at this juncture of the match, and so was his game plan.

The world no.3 sealed the double break advantage when he dragged Nadal from side to side with his overwhelming backhand until he pulled off a blister down the line. He was now up 4-0 in the second set. The comeback was on the cards, and what a turnaround it would be.

After avoiding the bagel set loss Nadal still looked uncertain on how to break down this invigorated Zverev. The defending champion looked to be on course for defending his title after bagging the second set in 38 minutes with yet another backhand bomb down the line.

The crowd on Court Centrale were buzzing with anticipation as Nadal kicked off the third set. With little raindrops appearing to fall from the skies Zverev kept pushing to earn himself a break point but an amazing exchange saw Nadal save his hide at the net. A huge roar and fistpump from the Spaniard, and he was just back to deuce. Another terrific point ended with Zverev passing the King of Clay with his forehand.

Zverev was annoying the livelihood out of Nadal with countless dropshots and he pulled another one out of his bag of tricks followed by a lob that Nadal smashed wide. Amazingly, Zverev got the break to lead 1-0 in the third set. After a strong hold to 30 it was Nadal who got on the scoreboard to trail 1-2. He was still fighting for all he was worth.

Nadal serves up a love hold to keep within distance of the German in the decider

At 3-1 15-0 with Nadal serving the rain started to pour down heavily and play was suspended for 10 minutes. When play resumed Nadal produced a double fault but quickly reasserted himself to claim the game. 3-2 Zverev.

As did Zverev mount an impressive comeback thusfar, so did the rain. This time the players went off the court. After a prolonged rain delay Zverev was on serve to protect his lead. The tension was palpable and soon Nadal was looking at break point which he converted when the German shanked his forehand wide. Nadal was re-energized, peppering his forehand deep in the corners. A relative easy hold later and he was back in the lead: 4-3.

The crowd in Rome is suffering from some showers

Nadal held his serve again quickly to put the pressure back on Zverev. After another heavily contested game Zverev faltered with a missed lob to hand Nadal the break he needed to serve out the match. Sascha had gone completely off the boil while Nadal had found back his aggressive game.

He did so in style, winning his 7th Rome Masters title and 32nd Masters title overall after 2 hours and 9 minutes of scintillating play. Match point saw two netcords from Sascha that got Nadal in prime position at the net to finish off with a diving backhand volley. Nadal back at world no.1 after a hard fought 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 victory.

The King of Clay has defied the odds once again. The rain delay so it seems turned it all around. Nadal came out of the blocks firing and Zverev was off his game completely. It looks he’s in prime position once more to defend his title at Roland Garros. Only a foolish man would bet against him doing so.

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