Nadal Shows Why He’s Still The King Of Clay, Wins Rome Opener

Rafael Nadal (photo: Foto FITP)

ROME/WASHINGTON, May 9, 2024 (by Michael Dickens)

Ten-time Internazionali BNL d’Italia champion Rafael Nadal returned to the Eternal City – and fans flocked to the Campo Centrale to watch the King of Clay at work Thursday afternoon.

Making his 19th appearance at the Foro Italico following a one-year absence, the 37-year-old Spaniard, who owns the most ATP Masters 1000 wins in series history (410), opened his final Rome campaign against 108th-ranked qualifier Zizou Bergs of Belgium with a come-from-behind 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory in two hours and 53 minutes. It was Nadal’s 70th career win in Rome – extending his record for most victories in this event – and moved him a round closer to winning an 11th Italian Open crown.

While the 512th-ranked Nadal (playing with a protected ranking of No. 9) aimed to avoid losing two consecutive matches on clay for the first time in his career after bowing to Jiri Lehecka in the fourth round at Madrid last week, the 24-year-old Bergs was seeking the first ATP Masters 1000 win of his young career after establishing himself on the ATP Challengers Tour by winning seven titles, most recently at Tallahassee, Fla. last month.

For a while, it looked like Bergs, who won two matches in qualifying earlier in the week to boost his PIF ATP Live Ranking to No. 96, was going to make some history against Nadal. However, the Spaniard’s fighting spirit prevailed just before the rain spread over Foro Italico for the second straight day.

Bergs won the opening set 6-4 after trailing by an early break 3-1. He got the break back in the fifth game and broke Nadal, again, in ninth game to go ahead 5-4. Then, the Belgian closed with his eighth winner of the set, a running volley half-jump smash. He won five of the last six games of the 47-minute opener.

However, Nadal was back in business as he jumped ahead early in the second set 3-0 with a break of Bergs in the second game. He saved a break point in holding his serve to increase his lead to 4-1. Soon, Nadal served for the set at 5-3 with a chance to take the first-round match to a decider. He hit an overhead smash winner to gain set point, then struck a huge forehand winner to secure the 62-minute second set. Nadal looked toward his box and raised a clinched left fist as his coach, Carlos Moya, could be seen on camera shouting “Vamos!” to Rafa.

Onward, Nadal and Bergs played into the third set. The Spaniard broke early to go ahead 2-1 and consolidated for a 3-1 advantage. Soon, Nadal faced three break points on his serve and steadily saved each of them. Then, he held serve at 4-2 after winning his fifth straight point of the sixth game, which brought tremendous applause from the Nadal faithful that filled Campo Centrale to capacity.

Bergs continued to pressure Nadal, but was unable to break back. With Nadal serving for the match at 5-4, quickly, he set up match point with his third ace up the middle. Finally, he closed out the victory when Bergs shanked a sixth-shot backhand that was set up by a blistering Nadal forehand.

As they met at the net, Bergs said to Nadal: “Incredible honor. I’m so happy for you.”

“It was not my best match. I was practicing better than how I played today without a doubt but I found a way to win,” Nadal said in his on-court interview. He finished with 23 winners to 32 unforced errors and his serve was broken twice by Bergs. “That is so important at the beginning of the tournament for me. My game is more unpredictable than before. I didn’t play much tennis for the past two years, so it is up and down. I think I can do much better than I did today and hope I can do it in the next round.”

Nadal, who improved to 7-3 is season while appearing in his third straight ATP Tour event, had to dig deep at times. However, his mental fortitude – not to mention the quality of his forehand groundstrokes – got him through to the second round. Nadal’s physicality showed no limitations against Bergs as he outpointed him 88-83. On Saturday, Nadal will play No. 7 seed Hubert Hurkacz of Poland.

“Always, it is emotional to play here in this kind of event – one of the most important events in my tennis career,” Nadal said. “Honestly, the crowds have always been amazing to me, supporting me since the beginning of my tennis career. So, I’m super excited to be able to play one more time here.”

Passaro shows why there’s no place like home

Italy’s Francesco Passaro outlasted Arthur Rinderknech of France in an epic encounter on Pietrangeli that took two days to complete due to rain suspending play during the second set on Wednesday evening.

After the 240th-ranked qualifier Passaro saved a pair of match points while serving to stay in the match at 2-5 down in the second set, he went on to beat No. 73 Rinderknech, 6-7 (3), 7-5, 7-6 (7), to advance to the second round against No. 23 seed Tallon Griekspoor of the Netherlands.

In the third-set tie-break, Passaro saved a third match point to draw even at 7-all, then closed out the victory on his third match-point opportunity two points later with an eighth-shot forehand winner to close out the three-hour, 12-minute epic. He finished with 40 winners to 35 unforced errors, compared to 30 winners an 50, unforced errors by Rinderknech. Passaro outpointed his opponent 120-114.

Top-25 singles stars shine on doubles court

It’s not often that four Top-25 singles stars get together in a doubles match but it happened Thursday on Court 6. There, Alexander Bublik of Kazakhstan, ranked 17th in singles, paired with No. 14 Ben Shelton of the United States to defeat No. 20 Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada and No. 25 Frances Tiafoe of the United States, 6-1, 6-7 (6), 10-7. Together, both teams provided plenty of hot shots and entertainment value – and Bublik even pulled out his trick underarm serve.

Bublik and Shelton son on their eighth match point and outpointed their opponents 74-67 to advance against Marcelo Melo of Brazil and Alexander Zverev of Germany, who upset No. 4 seeds Austin Krajicek of the United States and Neal Skupski of Great Britain, 7-6 (0), 6-7 (5), 11-9.

Medvedev is ready to defend Rome title

Seven days after he had to retire from his Madrid quarterfinal against Jiri Lehecka with a right leg injury, World No. 4 Daniil Medvedev has arrived in Rome, where he is ready to defend the only ATP Tour title he’s won on clay.

“I’m feeling good now. I had minor injury, I would say. Three days [I] stayed in Madrid, recovered a lot,” the No. 2 seed Medvedev explained during his pre-tournament news conference Thursday. “I came here, hit with the sparring [partners] to control my movement. Today I hit full … so I will play and see how it goes.”

Medvedev said that winning a Masters 1000 title on clay changed his attitude toward playing on the red dirt.

“It feels great. There are photos of me with the cup, the nice tunnel where they show all the champions, I’m there. Pretty good feeling,” Medvedev said. “I changed my perspective on clay courts. I play better now in Madrid. I was playing very good. I had good victories. … I feel like now on clay courts I can do big results. Not as surprising as last year.”

Medvedev will play his first match on Saturday against Great Britain’s Jack Draper, ranked 40th, who defeated No. 55 Borna Coric of Croatia, 7-5, 6-1, Thursday evening.

Around Foro Italico

First round winners include: Qualifier Hamad Medjedovic of Serbia, Dominik Koepfer of Germany, Thiago Seyboth Wild of Brazil, Jaume Munar of Spain, wild card Stefano Napolitano of Italy, wild card Matteo Gigante of Italy, Miomir Kecmanovic of Serbia, lucky loser Corentin Moutet of France,  Matteo Arnaldi of Italy and Roberto Carballes Baena of Spain.

Also, Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany, Marcos Giron of the United States, qualifier Alexandre Muller of France, qualifier Botic van de Zandschulp of the Netherlands, Aslan Karatsev of Russia, Luca Nardi of Italy, Dusan Lajovic of Serbia and wild card Fabio Fognini of Italy.

Medjedovic defeated Alexei Popyrin of Australia, 6-3, 6-2, while Koepfer beat Italian wild card Andrea Vavassori, 6-4, 6-3. Seyboth Wild won over French qualifier Gregoire Barrere, 6-4, 6-2, while Munar advanced over Rinjy Hijikata of Australia, 6-4, 7-5. Napolitano defeated American lucky loser J.J. Wolf, 6-2, 7-6 (3), while Gigante beat fellow Italian wild card Giulio Zeppieri, 7-6 (2), 6-4. Kecmanovic won against American qualifier Brandon Nakashima, 6-4, 6-4, while lucky loser Moutet advanced over Roman Safiullin of Russia, 3-6, 7-6 (1), 6-2. Arnaldi defeated French lucky loser Harold Mayot, 3-6, 7-5, 6-4, while Carballes Baena won by retirement over Christopher O’Connell of Australia, 6-7 (7), 5-0, retired.

Also, Struff advanced over Pedro Cachin of Argentina, 6-4, 6-4, while Giron rallied to defeat Emil Ruusuvuori of Finland, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3. Muller defeated Marton Fucsovics of Hungary, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-2, while van de Zandschulp beat Nicolas Moreno de Alboran of the United States, 7-5, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (4). Karatsev won against Mackenzie McDonald of the United States, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, while Nardi defeated Daniel Altmaier of Germany, 6-4, 6-4. Lajovic advanced over Lorenzo Sonego of Italy, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-3, while Fognini beat Daniel Evans of Greg Britain, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2.

Following the previous withdrawals of Matteo Berrettini (illness) and Stan Wawrinka (right wrist), there were two more withdrawals on Thursday: Tomas Machac (illness) and No. 13 seed Ugo Humbert (left knee). Lucky loser Juncheng Shang replaced Humbert in the draw and will face Napolitano in the second round. Wolf replaced Machac.

Play was suspended in the Rafael NadalZizou Bergs match for about nine minutes due to a medical incident in the stands at Campo Centrale. It occurred shortly after play began in the first game of the second set with Nadal ahead 40-0. Chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani brought bottles of water over to the stands to be rushed up to the affected fan. Nadal spent a portion of the break talking to Moya, while Bergs sat quietly in his chair with his eyes closed.

Thursday’s Foro Italico results

Friday’s Foro Italico order of play

By the numbers

Zizou Bergs lost in his third attempt to win his first ATP Masters 1000 match. The last Belgian to beat Nadal on clay was Olivier Rochus, who defeated then-15-year-old 762-ranked wild card Nadal in 2002 at Mallorca in his ATP Tour debut. Nadal is 13-0 versus Belgians on clay since.

“Quotable …”

“I’m not ready to perform and to give my best on court, I tried everything because this tournament is extra special for me. I have to put away my heart [and] use my brain a little bit more. Think about what’s most important for me, which is my health and not getting injured again, not being away from the courts for months potentially. It’s with a lot of sadness that I have to pull out.”

Matteo Berrettini of Italy on his decision to withdraw from this year’s tournament due to illness.