(1) Rafael Nadal vs (2) Alexander Zverev
The King Battles The Prince
The final of this year’s Italian Open has gifted us a battle between the two in form players on clay right now as top seed Rafael Nadal looks to unseat last year’s Rome champ Alexander Zverev. Both players are now 16-1 on clay this year with Zverev sporting a 13 match win streak to boot. Nadal beat Novak Djokovic in the semifinals 7-6 (4), 6-3 to advance to his first final in Rome since 2014. The top seed was challenged, winning just 64 percent of his first serve points against the Serb. Rafa still did better in big points though, offering up just three break chances and seeing Djokovic break one time. Djokovic on the other hand was broken three times on three chances. The 11th seed won just 60 percent of the points off his first serve.
The first set featured some great ground strokes from both players and the defending was superb. Nadal seemingly got to every ball, even if he came up short on a few shots. The big difference though came in the tiebreak, where the Spaniard was more aggressive in key moments. He hit two big shots, one off the forehand and then a backhand down-the-line to clinch the set. The forehand provided the big punches with 16 of Nadal’s 22 winners coming off that wing. And as always, Rafa seemed to dominate at the end of longer rallies. In rallies that went to double digit shots, it was Nadal winning 14 of 20 points. That’s something Zverev needs to be keenly aware of on Sunday.
For Zverev, he encountered stiff resistance from fourth seed Marin Cilic. Cilic was almost an afterthought in this stage, but he stuck with Zverev game for game. That included a tense first set tiebreak where Zverev fought off five set points, including one on Cilic’s serve. The second set saw Sascha rally after being broken in the opening game. He would pull even in the 8th game and then score a late break to close the match 7-6 (13), 7-5. Zverev was still rock solid on serve with a 79 percent win rate on first serve and he was broken just once on two break opportunities. The condition in Rome have not given him quite the boost on serve that he got in Madrid, where he was broken one time all week. This week, Zverev has been broken five times with all of those coming in the last three rounds.
As you’d expect off that scoreline, the semifinal showed a lot of big serves for easy points for both Sascha and Cilic. It was Cilic who had more trouble though with nine break points against his serve, while Zverev only saw two. Zverev spent the majority of the match along the baseline, going with power groundies that did give Cilic issues with their depth. Cilic didn’t challenge Zverev to alter that plan much, although I do think the Croat did a good job of mixing it up off his serve with some movement forward. Sascha did beat him with some passing shots, but the pressure was something that I think Cilic had to try.
Let me start by saying this match-up is great for the sport. It’s not often that you go towards a Grand Slam and get to see the two players who are playing the best face off in one of the big tune-up tournaments. That is what we get on Sunday when Rafa and Sascha clash for the fourth time on tour. They actually met earlier this year in Davis Cup play with Nadal easing past Zverev 6-1, 6-4, 6-4. The three tour matches have also belonged to Nadal and the last was Sascha’s worst defeat at the hands of Nadal when he lost 6-1, 6-1 last year in Monte Carlo. The previous two meetings were both on hard courts with Nadal surviving a roller coaster five setter at last year’s U.S. Open and also beating Sascha in three at Indian Wells in 2016.
Obviously between the Monte Carlo match and the Davis Cup match, it is a troubling set-up to this one for Sascha. Zverev did have slightly better serve stats in the Davis Cup rubber with 57 percent win rate on first serve and a 50 percent win rate on second. He was worth at 47 and 44 in their Madrid meeting. Nadal broke him five times off of 12 chances in Madrid and then six of eight times in Davis Cup play. Sascha can take a small bit of confidence in that he broke Rafa twice in the Davis Cup match after not being able to even craft a break chance against him in Madrid.
Some will say – well Zverev is serving as well as he has all season right now – which is true, but he has not been able to find a way to beat Nadal’s return. Rafa sets up super deep and Zverev has been unable to trouble him much because of that positioning. It keeps Nadal well in front of the serve on most occasions and the Spaniard has doubled down on that by providing good depth on his return shot. That has forced Zverev back a step or two in too many instances which again puts the German into a bind. Nadal is then able to work Sascha along the baseline and Zverev has not been aggressive enough to get out of long rallies. Much like we saw with Nadal and Djokovic, the rallies that go double digits are going to favor the Spaniard over Zverev as well.
In that vein, Sascha needs to be more aggressive in those baseline exchanges. Nadal’s defense runs down too many of the shots he puts back across in an effort to move Rafa around. You just are not going to find a ton of success on clay with that game plan. I think for Zverev to compete with a real chance to contend, he’s got to look to hit big and hit those angles that can trouble Nadal. That means taking chances to corners of the court where Rafa has to scramble for that next shot. Zverev simply has not put himself into enough winning positions on the court against Nadal and I think that relays back to not being aggressive enough with his groundies.
The other thing he has to improve on is returning Nadal’s serve. Zverev has to find that aggressive nature there to and try to find Nadal’s backhand more with the return ball. Littering Nadal with a bunch of soft returns to his forehand side is suicide, where the Spaniard usually turns ultra aggressive and crushes that next ball into a winning position. He did it a little better in their Davis Cup match at times, but has still struggled to really provide enough depth in return – especially setting behind the baseline as he has done against Rafa.
The Pig’s Bottom Line
On clay, this is a difficult prospect for Zverev. He will certainly have confidence due to his current run on the surface, but he has been easily frustrated in their two clashes on clay. That is one of the things that can get the second seed into a ton of trouble early on. He’s got to find some success against Nadal early to improve his mental state. For me, I’d rather go aggressively at Nadal and miss shots rather than play into Nadal’s baseline rhythm and then throw a tantrum because I’m stubborn and think I can play through the King of Clay on his surface. That has always been a fault for Zverev early in his career, a lack of willingness to try a different approach against certain opponents.
For me, this is a bad match-up overall for Zverev. Nadal plays the type of tennis that Zverev has had trouble with in the past. That is physical, grueling rallies where he cannot outhit his opponent’s defense and his own defense isn’t up to snuff. Yes, his serve is improved, but the conditions in Rome still don’t translate to him getting much extra help as it did in Madrid. The plus of course is that this is best of three and that means Zverev could punch Nadal hard early and bully his way to two sets before Nadal rights the ship. The minus is that there has been zero indication on clay that Zverev is capable of doing so.
Don’t forget this is Zverev’s third straight final in three weeks. That is quite a bit of tennis, even if he’s been winning in straight a lot. The worst guy you can go against when your wheels might be going just a bit is Nadal. Look for Rafa to test those legs plenty in this one and that can also play into diminishing the Sascha serve. I think Rafa gets back on top in Rome on Sunday and heads to Roland Garros with the idea that no one can beat him in a best of five.
Prediction: Nadal wins in straight sets