Fittingly, the two best clay court players this season, Rafael Nadal and Alexander Zverev, collide in the final warm up for the French Open.
Earlier today, Nadal got through Novak Djokovic in their first meeting in over a year. After a very subpar start to the 2018, Djokovic actually looked pretty decent at times today, but with that forehand humming, it was too much Nadal.
Rafa got an early break, blew it serving for the first, but his forehand bailed him out in the breaker. Then he rode the momentum for a 7-6(4), 6-3 victory. Djokovic still leads the series 26-25 but Rafa has won the last two, both in straight sets.
“It was a tough battle, I think a good level of tennis,” Nadal said. “combination of tactics, a combination of great shots for both of us. Very important victory for me. I’m very happy.”
Rafa wasn’t at his best, I felt, but he did just enough. Meanwhile, Djokovic, as I said, did well and for his fans he gave them some much-needed hope for the French.
Novak’s serve still isn’t there and I don’t think he moves as well as he did, but he showed a lot of fire and want this week, something I didn’t really see back in March. That said, he’ll fall outside of the Top 20 at No. 22, leaving him a precarious seeding position come Paris.
“Rafa was just better in important moments. He just managed to play right shots and he deserved to win. He was the better player,” said Djokovic. “I don’t think that there was too much of a difference, which is great for me, great news for me. Because Rafa is, of course, the best player ever to play tennis on clay courts. And he’s in great, great form. It’s very difficult to play him on clay anywhere. But as I said, I thought the level of my tennis was very high.
“All in all, really, really good quality match,” he added. “I enjoyed it. I hope the crowd did, too. And I can only take positives from this week.”
In the second match, playing in his first clay Masters semi, Marin Cilic put up a good fight in an epic first set breaker, but once again the Croat came up just short against a Top 5 player (he missed 5 set points chances). Alexander Zverev was just a bit better in big moments, came from a break down in the second, and took it 7-6(13), 7-5.
Zverev has won his last 13 matches dropping just one single set, that to Davis Goffin a few days ago. But will the defending champ keep it going?
Rafael Nadal v Alexander Zverev
I know Zverev has the streak and he won Rome last year, but he’s never beaten Nadal on clay nor has he beaten Nadal anywhere for that matter (0-4).
Obviously, Zverev has the firepower and right now the confidence, but Nadal’s the King of Clay for a reason and it’s awfully hard to pick against him, even though the German is playing so well.
“It will be a tough one. Sascha is playing great, winning a lot of matches in a row. Playing against Marin, he’s having a great year,” Nadal said. “Tomorrow I need to be ready to keep playing my best and that’s what I’m going to try.”
If Rafa wins tomorrow, he also returns to No. 1 and gets the top seeding in Paris. But an eighth Rome title sounds nice as well.
“If I am back to No. 1, it’s great,” said Nadal on Saturday. “Better than to be No. 2, it’s true. My motivation is to win a title and I am playing for this tomorrow.”
Meanwhile, Zverev, who just won Madrid, will have to try to beat Nadal for a first time and have to do it on clay.
“There’s not much you need to say about him. He’s won so many tournaments on this surface, won the French Open 10 times, so I’m definitely not the favourite in this matchup,” said Zverev. “But hopefully I’ll be ready for it. I’ll do everything I can to recover and we’ll see tomorrow how it goes.
“We’ve had some very tough matches,” Zverev added. “In Indian Wells, I lost with a match point and in Australia we went five sets. Obviously we had some great battles and I’ve always enjoyed playing him. He’s the greatest of all time on clay, but hopefully I can prepare the best I can for tomorrow.”
Again, Zverev has the shots, the game, the serve. It’s all there except for the experience of having defeated Rafa. And that’s really the difference.
The Pick: Nadal in 3
Tennis Channel will have the match live at 10am ET. And that comes after what could another French Open final preview in the women’s Rome title match which pits World No. 1 Simona Halep against defending champion Elina Svitolina (not on Tennis Channel!).
It’s not a Slam so I give the edge to the Ukraine, especially after she had an easy day beating Anett Kontavait while Halep and Maria Sharapova traded 19 breaks of serve before the Romanian won 4-6, 6-1, 6-4.
“I was happy to be able to play so well, and in the end win the match,” Halep said. “It’s always tough to play against her so I was really happy, and I celebrated how I felt. I tried to be aggressive the whole match, and I did it even if sometimes it went too far.
“I think I played my best match on clay, and I’m really happy that even though she played her best, I won the match.”
Svitolina beat Halep in the final a year ago and leads overall 3-2 winning their last two.
“It’s nice that we are again in the final, both of us,” Halep said. “It’s going to be a nice match, but I hope I don’t get injured again. I started well last year, so the game is there, I know how to play. But still, she’s a very tough opponent and a great player. I have to be focused on myself and play my best.”
So it’s a big day tomorrow in Rome, and two finals we could certainly see again three weekends from now!
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