2017 Monte Carlo Masters R16 Preview: Rafael Nadal vs Alexander Zverev

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If their first two meetings are any indicator of what to expect on Thursday, it could be another topsy-turvy thrill ride when Rafael Nadal and Alexander Zverev meet in Monte Carlo. The winner gets a trip to the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters quarterfinals.

(4) Rafael Nadal vs (14) Alexander Zverev

It looked like an easy day at the office for Rafael Nadal after one set in his opener against Kyle Edmund on Wednesday. Rafa was all over Edmund’s serve, breaking the Brit three times as he bagled him in a nearly flawless first set. It looked like an early day still in the second set when Nadal broke Edmund for the fourth time for a 2-1 lead, but he would be broken back in the next game to put the action back on serve. They would swap breaks again later in the set as Edmund this time blew the break lead, but was able to close out the second set 7-5 with a third break of the Nadal serve. Rafa would win just 18 of 35 points off his serve in the set after taking 12 of 15 in the swift moving first set.

The third set would see Edmund’s level dip on serve again as the Brit was broken three times late with Nadal finishing off a 6-0, 5-7, 6-3 win in two hours and 18 minutes. At times, Nadal looked like the King of Clay, but Edmund’s variety on the day really caused him some struggles. Perhaps we can chalk this one up to Rafa’s first match on clay and he’ll improve from here, but he’ll definitely need to sharpen his game if he hopes to win an unprecedented tenth title in Monte Carlo this week.

As for Sascha Zverev, he’s been on cruise control through two rounds. He picked off Feliciano Lopez in straight sets with a bagel set of his own to open en route to a 6-0, 6-4 win. The 14th seed was broken just once on two chances as he won 31 of 43 service points. Lopez was flat with his serve, winning just 26 of 57 points. The Spaniard faced nine break points and saw his German counterpart convert four of those. It was a perfect follow-up for Zverev, who spanked Andreas Seppi 6-1, 6-2 to start his campaign in Monte Carlo earlier in the week. His serve has been solid and he will need that, if he hopes to beat Nadal.

Close Encounters of the Thrilling Kind

Nadal and Zverev have met twice before with both meetings on hard courts. The most recent was a five set roller coaster ride at the Australian Open in January. Nadal prevailed 4-6 6-3 6-7 (5-7) 6-3 6-2 in a match that seemed to fuel his belief that he was back on top of his game. It was a four hour grind that saw Rafa seeming more spry in the fifth set as Zvrev dealt with cramping issues. Zverev’s keys to getting a two sets to one lead were aggressive play on his ground strokes and solid serving. It was no coincidence that he struggled in the final two sets, when his serve failed him and he was forced into too many baseline rallies that Rafa controlled.

For Nadal, his serve got better as that match wore on. He did face seven break points, but came up big by saving five of them. Zverev conversely was pressured into 16 break points, saving eleven. Nadal did a lot of his damage off Sascha’s second serve, taking 58 percent of the points. Nadal would win 62 percent of the points off his own second serve. Zverev’s big ground game produced 74 winners to go against 58 unforced errors. Nadal only had 34 winners and 43 UEs.

Their first meeting at Indian Wells in 2016 was also a classic with Nadal somehow surviving 6-7 (8), 6-0, 7-5. Zverev had match point on Rafa, but it was the Spaniard who proved the better closer. He would win 15 of the final 16 points in the match. The numbers were pretty familiar in that meeting with Nadal again facing less break chances (7) to Zverev’s (10). Rafa would be broken only three times compared to seven for Sascha. Zverev was again under 50 percent on his win rate off his second serve and he also had eleven double faults, the same number he produced in Melbourne against Nadal this year.

Aggressive Play Key for Zverev

The word that Rafael Nadal used after both meetings was aggressive to describe Zverev’s play when he had Nadal on the ropes in both their previous clashes. What Zverev lacked was the consistency to maintain the needed level of aggression to beat Nadal over the course of either match. That again figures to be the key factor on Thursday. Zverev obviously has the big game to trouble Nadal. His ground strokes are powerful and his two-handed backhand is a real weapon.

In looking back, the thing that stuck out to me in their Australian Open meeting again was the number of times that Zverev didn’t seem to mind getting into grinding baseline exchanges with Nadal. Granted, the 19-year-old did have a fair amount of success in those rallies early. However, you could just tell he was playing with fire the more times he engaged Nadal in those exchanges. Nadal had it in his mind that he could profit later in the match by keeping Sascha in those rallies, even if it meant losing points, games or a set early.

That’s the risky proposition for Zverev in this one. He’s comfortable from the baseline and prefers to play baseline to baseline with most opponents. It’s not that it doesn’t equate to a winning formula for this week’s 14th seed, his record proves it does. It is just that against experienced guys like Nadal, Djokovic and Murray who eat up baseline exchanges for breakfast – you have to be at peak performance nearly all match to have that strategy pay off with a win.

So while Zverev shouldn’t put any drastic changes into his game plan this time around, he does need to find a balance between engaging in those longer exchanges and looking to end some points more quickly.

What’s on Second?

With respect to Abbott & Costello, serve in this match won’t be about WHO is on first, but about WHAT is on second. As in, what do both players have to offer off their second serves. AS laid out before, one of the key differences in both previous matches has been Nadal’s ability to eat up Zverev’s second serve. Nadal is WHAT is on second. If he repeats the feats of the two previous matches by winning more than half the points off second serve, Zverev will be in trouble. Sascha needs to do a better job taking care of his serve against the Spaniard in general. Any time you allow a quality defender and returner like Nadal to see double digit break chances, you’re likely to find yourself down on the scoreboard.

Zverev’s double fault issues against Nadal also highlight the added pressure that Nadal puts on your as the match wears on. Zverev simply must do a better job with his service consistency throughout the course of the match. As for Nadal, he did not have a great serving day against Edmund to open, but it worked. He’ll need better in that category too as he won less than 40 percent off his second serve. The usual plus for Rafa is that he doesn’t have as many second serves in play, so having a lower win rate there is not always a killer. Still, the more the German sees of that Rafa second serve, the better off he’ll be and he absolutely must take advantage of what likely will be relatiively few chances.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

It’s simple in theory as to how this gets decided. For Nadal, he wants to lure Zverev into those punishing baseline exchanges. He has exhibited patience when he’s not controlling these types of rallies, knowing that if he does what is proper to his game, he’ll eventually control the pace and placement with that top spin forehand. Nadal doesn’t need to be perfect on serve, but he does need to come up with the big points to fight off break points. He has done a good job of that most of the season thus far.

For Zverev, be aggressive and consistent. From ball one on serve to ball 274 played off the ground, exercise your power game and keep going for it. Don’t be afraid to make unforced errors by hitting big. That’s the way of the world in modern tennis, especially if you want to knock off an elite player. Rafa has shown that he is on that level again. So Sascha must bring that consistent firepower off the ground and he must minimize the inconsistency on serve. You’ll know his chances of winning likely by looking at his save percentage on break points against his own serve.

On faster hard courts, Zverev’s power game has troubled Nadal at times, but Rafa has problem solved for wins both times. I think the slower conditions on clay will only benefit him more. It will give him more time to get to balls and Zverev likely will remain too glued to the baseline. Again, I don’t think its necessarily a bad tactic for Sascha to remain in that comfort zone along the baseline, but he must be willing to switch it up and move towards the net. That is something Kyle Edmund did some on Wednesday and it did throw off Nadal a little bit.

I won’t be surprised to see Zverev again with a lead in this one, he’s that good. Over the course of three sets however, I expect Nadal to once again where him down if Zverev chooses to continually engage in lengthy rallies. This should be a good one and Nadal’s toughest test in getting to the semifinals after Grigor Dimitrov was snuffed out by Jan-Lennard Struff on Wednesday.

Prediction: Nadal wins in three sets

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