Italian Open: Rafael Nadal stretches clay empire to regain No 1 spot by conquering Rome

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Rafael Nadal’s clay empire.

Just as the historical Italian capital, the Spaniard has built his career meticulously – as carefully as he lines the water bottles by his chair and strides on the court, making sure he doesn’t step on any lines. For 17 years on the pro circuit, he has constructed his dominance brick by brick, shot by shot, grinding down opponents to haul his legacy higher.

 Italian Open: Rafael Nadal stretches clay empire to regain No 1 spot by conquering Rome

Rafael Nadal celebrates with the trophy after winning the final against Germany's Alexander Zverev. Reuters

If Nadal is the King of Clay – as he as so often been dubbed – then in Sunday’s final at the Rome Masters he came up against the heir apparent, Alexander Zverev. In the German, Nadal was to face the best of the much-hyped NexGen, and the player who has been touted to take over Grand Slam winning duties from the Big Four.

There was to be no upset on the cards though, for Nadal, who also had the top spot in world ranking on offer, rose above the best the next generation has to offer, to come up with a 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 win for his eighth title in Rome. So far this season, he has already won 11 titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. At the clay-court season’s grand finale in grandiose Paris, he will vie for an eleventh French Open title.

Curiously, for Nadal, he hadn’t won in Rome since 2013. The wait might have had to go on for longer, as Zverev was the one with all the momentum by the time the third set came up.

In the first, Nadal was at his usual dominating self – striking the ball with vicious topspin and menacing venom. His 21-year-old opponent had no answer, as Nadal raced to 6-1 in 28 minutes.

Zverev flipped the script in the second. Standing at 6-foot-6, defending champion Zverev wasn’t going to surrender his territory without a fight. He had bagged his third Masters title in Madrid a Sunday ago. And the World No 3 put Nadal to the test, hitting his forehands hard, flat and deep to unsettle the unflappable Nadal. The German drove 11 winners past Nadal’s defence in the second set.

From the start of the second set, the German won nine of 11 games, levelling the sets with a 6-1 win of his own. He even got a break early in the decider and was leading 3-2.

That was the cue for the weather Gods to step in.

Before the rain delay, Nadal was struggling to deal with Zverev’s powerful ground strokes and even bigger serve. But as the rain poured down over the Foro Italico, the Spaniard took the time to analyse and find the solution.

“When it happened, delay, the rain delay, I didn’t feel in that moment that it would help me,” Nadal said. “But really, in my opinion, what helped me is that I came back with a clear idea in terms of tactical issues and in terms of decisions that I take after that break. The second serve, he (Zverev) was able to hit the first ball with perfect position. I was just running to save the points. And when I came back, I believe I started to return again much higher and longer.”

Even as Zverev took some time to warm up his long limbs, Nadal stepped out with purpose. Indeed, there was more purpose in Nadal’s play once play resumed, and it showed. Nadal found the perfect loop on the ball to confound Zverev. Immediately he went on to break Zverev’s serve to level the set at 3-3. And then the magic followed.

Back when Nadal was of Zverev’s age, he’d often don a sleeveless top to project his intimidating bulging biceps. It wasn’t for cosmetic effect though. And if Zverev could hit the ball hard, even on clay, he was up against a man whose repertoire includes some of the most lethal shots in the game.

While serving for the match, Nadal set himself up for championship point with an inside-out forehand drive deep into Zverev’s right side corner. It was a shot reminiscent of Nadal in his early days, hitting with pure grit and passion.

Earlier still though, he produced arguably the shot of the match. As his forehand drives began pushing Zverev further from the baseline, the Spaniard came up to the net to reduce all margins. The German tried to lob him, but never succeed. One lob though, on the first point at 3-3, did connect well. And it seemed that the back-pedalling Nadal would miss it. Instead, looking towards his own baseline, he smashed a cross-court winner.

The point to win the title had its own bit of artistry. Not everything Nadal does is about brute force or aggression. His heavily taped hands can produce the softest of touches whenever required. Zverev’s attempted backhand pass was met by an outstretched Nadal, who guided a cross-court drop shot winner.

At the Eternal City, on his favourite red dirt, Nadal proved to be the everlasting force.

Updated Date: May 21, 2018 12:30:47 IST