What if the rain hadn’t come? Maybe Alexander Zverev would have gotten his third straight title, and the most significant win of his life: Rafael Nadal on clay in a final. That’s not an especially big “maybe,” either, just a medium-sized one.
That “maybe” had not yet materialized in the opening set of Sunday’s Italian Open final. Zverev lost 6-1 to Nadal, but then the 21-year-old began moving forward in the court more aggressively and swinging free on his best shot, his two-handed backhand. The Rafa topspin, which torments so many players on tour and pushes them back off the court, seemed not to faze him, perhaps because his 6-foot-6 stature put him in decent position to hit the ball even when it kicks up high off the clay. Zverev was still getting worked side-to-side along the baseline, but handled that pressure well thanks to the smooth movement so unusual for a player of his large size. He flipped the first set’s results to take the second one 6-1.
Across 444 tour-level matches on clay, there have been only a dozen matches in which Rafa lost a set 6-1 or 6-0. People don’t usually come into his house and cause a commotion. That lopsided second set put Zverev in rare company. After breaking Rafa’s serve in the third set, the young German was up 3-1 and poised to capitalize on the opportunity. Rain came and went, then lingered long enough to halt the match at 3-2. Zverev had won nine of the last 12 games.
Players took refuge under umbrellas, fans retreated, tarps rolled out to shield the dirt. Play was delayed for a total of 50 minutes. When it resumed, the match was unrecognizable. Nadal, who had looked so vulnerable before the downpour, followed his more familiar script: break serve, hold serve, break serve, hold serve, and claim an eighth title in Rome with a 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 victory. Any doubts in his mind or errors in his gameplan had been erased in the bad weather. “He came out way faster, played way more aggressive than I did. It took me a long time to get activated again. I ran out of time,” Zverev said after the match.
Zverev—who, despite all his struggles at the majors to date, still appears likely be tennis’s next multiple slam winner—was deprived of a career milestone. He has earned his wins over Federer, on grass in 2016 and on the hard court last summer (with a little assistance from back pain). But Nadal has still eluded him in all five meetings. He had his match points at Indian Wells in 2016, the five-setter at the Australian Open in 2017, and he was up a break in the deciding set yesterday, but he has never been able to complete the feat. The rain, and Rafa, saved Rafa.